For years, banks have experimented with ways to use talking heads to make customers more comfortable with online banking.
Now comes an attempt to shrink-wrap the teller.
Banksiel, an Italian banking technology vendor, has teamed up with LifeFX Inc., a Newton, Mass., software developer, to promote the use of lifelike tellers on bank Web sites.
LifeFXs stand-in virtual people can speak with computer-animated voices to Web visitors and communicate emotions through realistic facial expressions.
The software firm is the latest to try to eliminate consumers frustrations with point-and-click interfaces that are confusing or difficult to use. Clumsy screens have been cited as a primary reason that many customers abandon efforts to bank online.
Several banking Web sites have already tried to entice customers with realistic illusions. Security First Network Bank tried to make people comfortable with Internet banking by creating the image of a bank, complete with a presidents office where customers could leave e-mail comments or complaints, on early versions of its Web site.
And at BarnettTown, an interactive television service created by the former Barnett Banks Inc. and Time Warner, customers could choose from animated teller options that included a man, a woman, and a dog. Most went for the dog.
Customers dont only want to have a text-based medium, said Bill Clausen, a spokesman for LifeFX. Theres no sense of humanity in that experience.
In its current form, the LifeFX application lets customers type in a request or click on a menu choice. This prompts a virtual teller to respond by, say, completing the transaction and telling the customer the new balance.
Banksiel is working on software that would let customers walk up to automated teller machines or computers and speak their requests, Mr. Clausen said.
Banks can use the virtual tellers to personalize their offerings or to promote a specific brand identity, he said. For instance, the tellers can be designed to be fun and irreverent or sober and buttoned-down, and a customer can choose a favorite teller to use each time he or she logs on, he said.
Banksiel approached LifeFX in March about virtual tellers, Mr. Clausen said. The Italian company said it had identified the user interface as a primary element in its next generation of Internet banking applications.
Virtual tellers will help its clients with customer loyalty, customer profiling, and cross-selling, Banksiel said.
The software, which Banksiel expects to have licensed to Italian banks by the fourth quarter, was developed 15 years ago by two doctors to aid biomedical research, and it later was adapted for use in movie special effects.
LifeFX, whose clients include International Business Machines Corp., Kodak Co., and Whirlpool Corp., has licensed the software from the doctors. It says it did not seek a partnership for the banking industry and has made no deal with a U.S. banking company. However, it would not comment on whether a deal is in the works.
Analysts said they doubted the appeal of virtual tellers would drive large numbers of people to Web banking.
The software might appeal to people who are on the fence about online banking, said Ray Graber, a senior analyst at TowerGroup, a bank technology research firm in Needham, Mass. It may not bring more people in, but it may make them feel more comfortable once they are at the banks Web site. He said he expects the software to create a marginal improvement in customer use of the service.
Jaime Punishill, an analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., technology consulting firm, said banks should spend their time and money on resolving the more important obstacles to customer use of Web banking.There are so many greater priorities, he said.
For example, Mr. Punishill said, banks should focus on how to record each persons preferences, such as whether a customer likes receipts for transactions. The banks should also figure out how to take the initiative in recommending products, he said.
The LifeFX concept is neat, but it isnt going to solve the big problems, he said.