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A tall stranger walks into a crowded bank and surveys the scene around him. As he does so, real-time information flashes up, digitally imprinting itself over the real world around him.

Sounds like something from Robocop, doesn’t it? Once upon a time, this kind of futuristic-sounding technology remained only in the realm of science fiction movies, but to steal a line from any number of Hollywood blockbusters, the future is now, and such technology – known as augmented reality – is rapidly becoming a staple of life in the 21st Century.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality in real life

The concept, in which a real-world view is supplemented by digital information such as graphics, data or even video, has been around for a number of years now – think of the last time you watched a sports match in which the commentators analysed the action with overlaid graphics on the screen – though it wasn’t until Internet pioneer Google announced the development of their Google Glass device back in 2012 that the term ‘Augmented Reality’ (AR) became the latest buzzword to spring forth out of the digital revolution.

Google’s head-mounted display – which can record video, take photographs and display a slew of apps such as Maps, email and web browsers – may be a few years away from becoming the latest mass-market consumer technology, but that hasn’t stopped augmented reality becoming a standard feature of modern smartphones.

Today, a number of the world’s most downloaded mobile applications put the technology to work to help users do everything from planning the perfect golf shot to finding a restaurant.

AR in the Banking Industry

Does this mean we can dismiss augmented reality as merely something designed for a little frivolous fun?

Not if those leading the way in digital banking have anything to say about it: as the industry continues to find practical uses for emerging new consumer technology, top financial institutions are already exploring ways to combine AR technology with traditional banking tools.

Heading the charge comes Westpac New Zealand, who in mid-2014 became the first bank in the world to compliment their existing financial software with an account management app using augmented reality app.

Chief Digital Officer Simon Pomeroy explains in this video how the app enables customers to carry out tasks such as managing their account, tracking their last transactions and spend locations, and finding their closest ATM.

As much acclaim as Westpac received for their app, they’re not the only financial institution supplementing their banking software with AR. Months before the New Zealand firm announced their app, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) announced an upgrade to their standard app which used AR to locate their nearest branch or ATM, whilst in China, consumers can use their banking app’s augmented reality features to pick up discount coupons from local retailers.

Cutting the Costs of Digital Banking

So far, so sci-fi, right? But beyond the mere bragging rights, are there any practical reasons why those in the digital banking sector should be looking to follow the likes of Westpac and RBC in launching augmented reality products?

According to a number of financial software specialists, the answer is absolutely, particularly when it comes to reducing the costs of managing their digital platforms.

Head into any modern bank in 2016, and there’s a good chance you’ll find customers making the use of interactive displays and digital signage systems to do everything from general account management to making payments and arranging appointments with an advisor. Make no mistake about it: such devices don’t come cheap with the cost of the hardware alone running well into the tens of thousands. Add in the costs of maintenance, software development and general running costs, and that’s a pretty big bite out of a bank’s budget.

Now contrast that with the much lower costs of using the same banking software running on a customer’s own mobile or tablet, thus negating much of the hardware costs incurred by digitising branch banking.

The Challenges Ahead

On the face of it, there’s another key benefit of AR technology, with Christopher Jackson arguing in the Augmented Reality Trends blog that incorporating AR into in-branch banking could help alleviate privacy concerns: a customer’s own smart device is much less susceptible to over-the-shoulder lurkers than the larger digital displays found in most branches.

Yet by the same token, issues of privacy are one of the key factors working against widespread adoption of AR technology, particularly where the aforementioned Google Glass is concerned.

Already in the United States, businesses have banned the use of the headset due its recording functionalities, whilst forensic experts from the University of Massachusetts have found that Google Glass can be used to steal passwords by tracking finger shadows whilst a user is tapping their information onto a keypad.

Clearly, this poses a challenge for financial institutions looking to benefit from the growing use of AR technology, but one that, if they can overcome it, will only serve to help those institutions keep up with the digital revolution, all without hiring the services of Robocop.

See more about AR at the upcoming ARVR Innovate in Dublin, April 28th

If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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