Does an ATM-locator app need to have sex appeal?

At first, the design of the new PNC Finder app for the iPhone seems like it might be overkill. Its main feature is an augmented-reality display, which draws graphics and text over the real-world video images that are streamed through the phone's camera. Point the phone at a building and it will tell you on-screen whether there's a PNC Financial Services Group Inc. branch or ATM inside.

It also includes a plain map for those who want a less flashy ATM-finding experience, but perhaps the flash serves a purpose.

But in one instance, a PNC customer who has long thought there were no PNC locations near his office found via the app that just across the street there is an ATM connected to Cardtronics Inc.'s Allpoint network, which is free to PNC customers.

"You could have looked at a map to see where the nearest ATMs were, but you never did," says Nicole Sturgill, a research director at Towergroup. It was the "cool factor" of the app that led the user to this discovery, she says.

"Is it necessary? No. Is it cool? Yes," she says.

Augmented reality is not a new concept, and despite its high-tech appearance, it's not hard to implement, Sturgill says. City-guide apps typically include the feature to help users find restaurants and other businesses they list. Many smartphone games use the technology, and Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s 3DS handheld game system, which has three built-in cameras, comes with two augmented-reality games.

It's even in an app that lets viewers of a Bank of the West-sponsored tennis tournament view stats by pointing their phone cameras at a participating athlete.

PNC "didn't have to develop the technology," Sturgill says. "The technology exists."

There is more value to such technology than just the cool factor, according to Wade Arnold, chief executive of T8 Webware LLC, a Web-hosting and online banking vendor. (PNC developed its app in-house; it did not work with T8.)

"Augmented reality is … bringing the bank with you, wherever you're at," Arnold says. "As you continue to figure out how to take banking out of the branch, you're going to have to figure out better tricks in order to have that rich experience with the consumer."

Arnold suggested other uses for augmented reality besides ATM location. It could allow better feedback during check imaging so that the user does not have to wait for a response from a server to know whether a check image was taken clearly. It could also be used to capture payment-card data to make a mobile transaction.

PNC's use of the technology fits with its practice of creating more digitally-focused banking interfaces, Sturgill says.

"For PNC, it goes along with Virtual Wallet," a bank account PNC designed to be managed primarily online, Sturgill says. "They're always thinking of, 'How do you serve people outside of the branch' " and use technology to do so.

"The augmented-reality app provides our customers with an easy-to-use, visual representation of the world around them," a PNC spokesman said by email. "This app is a convenient and interactive way to quickly find a nearby PNC branch or ATM."

Should other banks follow its lead?

An augmented-reality branch locator does not provide the same utility that other mobile-banking features do, Sturgill says, so it's unlikely that PNC's rivals are rushing to match this feature.

But some might, simply because the technology is so accessible to developers, she says. "If it doesn't take that much effort, then why not do it?"