In downtown San Francisco, in a skyscraper on Fremont Street, is an ordinary looking room with a slew of gadgets like Google Glass, a smart watch, a smart TV, the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift and the home-connecting device Nest.
This room, which opened as Wells Fargo's Digital Labs in late September, symbolizes an attempt by the fourth-largest bank by assets to test bank apps on promising technologies. For now, it is a test kitchen of what-if recipes for the new digital world.
"These are all demos and ideas," said Sivesh Thangarajah, project manager at Wells Fargo, who guided the tour.
The tests range from the more practical (think video banking) to what seems more futuristic (putting virtual reality headsets on bankers) but all help the bank learn about digital experiences at a time when new threats from tech companies and retailers are emerging.
A major theme of the current pilot work is authentication.
Indeed, one of the more near-term possibilities Wells Fargo is experimenting with is improving the drive-through banking experience. Drive-throughs, of which Wells has 4,000 across the country, still require customers to send over their driver's licenses in pneumatic tubes so tellers can make visual IDs. To improve this decades-old experience, Wells is testing the ability to let customers pre-order transactions with mobile phones. In other words, customers could schedule a cash withdrawal at a nearby drive-through on their smartphones. The app would spit out a passcode that would serve as identification. Thangarajah said the bank could set up time limits to the code.
Similar transactions has intrigued bankers in more recent months. Wintrust Financial has been testing a similar experience: customers who pre-order a transaction on a mobile app would then scan QR codes on the drive-through machine to claim their money.
And other banks have been working to modernize drive-throughs. BBVA Compass, Huntington Bank and Bank of America have been among the banks testing the replacement of pneumatic tubes with video capabilities.
Wireless beacons are another technology being tested in the Wells Fargo lab, which the bank is integrating with its mobile app. Customers who opted in would fire up the mobile app, take a headshot and share their reason for visiting the branch. Branch greeters, then, would see the data on their tablets as customers walk through the door and know who they are and why they are there. The bank is also exploring the idea of letting bankers wear Google Glass devices to better identify customers coming into the branch.
Video banking was also on display in the lab. A smart TV app would let customers video chat with their advisers as well as use gestures to help set up financial plans or conduct transactions. Similar to Amazon's Mayday service for customers seeking help, the experience would let both parties (the banker and customer) work from and see the same screen information.
Wells has yet to make video a part of its banking experience, but banks nationwide have been testing it in branches to help connect customers to offsite experts, while they try to save on operational costs. Bank of America, for example, makes the option available on some of its more modern ATMs.
The driving force behind many of these experiments is one of Wells' major goals: making banking quicker. In the lab, Wells is also testing apps for smart watches that include alerts that would vibrate to make wearers know, say, they have almost hit a financial goal. Sure, the smart watch has to pair with the smartphone, but the idea is checking an alert on the wrist is faster than whipping out a smartphone.
Jacob Jegher, a research director within Celent's banking group, views tech test labs as providing valuable insight into experiences that could take off one day.
"The only way to understand [emerging technology] is to try it," Jegher said.
"It's about building out new experiences. This is something that should be commoditized in financial services. We are nowhere near that."
In his view, banks and the major tech vendors which smaller financial institutions depend on need to do more testing of emerging technologies.
And Wells Fargo, for one, has graduated ideas from its innovation lab. An online banking feature that lets customers book an appointment with a branch banker, for example, is now available to customers and was first tested in the lab environment. Other idea graduates include real-time text alerts and a cash flow monitor.
Already, Thangarajah and others are thinking about what the lab will test next year. He said the bank plans to better personalize transaction data. Wells is brainstorming ways to bring people's emotional reactions think "this was a great meal with my best buddy" on Facebook status updates into transaction records. The idea is to find a way to help customers better recall what they bought than just displaying a merchant code, which he said "can be hard to decipher."
Wells Fargo's experimental work comes as banks, including Wells, are hosting accelerators, incubators and hackathons to collect fresh thinking from startups.
According to co-founder of the Bank Innovators Council, JP Nicols, there is no shortage of good ideas. The next and very real challenge for all banks is finding ways to implement new technologies when their companies can often be laden with legacy technology, rigid regulation, and business silos.
"Finding ideas is the easiest part," Nicols said in a recent phone interview. "Putting ideas into action is a struggle."