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Imagining banking without keyboards, apps or screens

The Amazons, Apples and Googles of the world are all preparing for a future of computing without keyboards or even screens, where smart speakers, augmented reality web browsing and virtual reality interfaces are consumers' vital tools.

The challenge facing banks, according to executives, is finding meaning and context for banking services in a simulated and automated environment.

More simply, can the tangible quality of handling money translate into virtual service? The answer that banks are gravitating toward relies on crafting experiences suitable for the technology that are available at any given moment.

“The way we like to think about this topic is from the perspective of the customer,” Ben Soccorsy, senior vice president of Wells Fargo virtual channels, said at a recent industry conference. “We like to think of it in the realm of contextual banking, with the notion of our customers being more hyperconnected” to multiple devices. “What can they do in banking within that context?”

David Hoffman, the global banking and capital markets leader for PwC in the United States, asks banks to think of future technology innovation in the realm of what the firm calls “the art of the possible.” Technologies such as augmented and virtual reality already exist on the market in some iteration, Hoffman said in an interview.

“The question in our mind is, at what point and in what combination do the economics of deploying these work?" he said. “When does the cost of these capabilities reach a point that it then becomes a business case? ... At what point will someone have done some experimenting or proof-of-concept.”

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Such experiments likely will happen outside of the usual smartphone environment.

Rich Clow, an emerging payments and strategy executive at Bank of America, said the smartphone will become less of a remote control for other devices as those gadgets become more intelligent and perform automated tasks.

“I think what we’ll see in the next five to 10 years is how AI and chatbots will be able to perform simple tasks for us,” he said at the conference. “Where do banks and others in the ecosystem fit into those areas?”

BofA and Wells Fargo are two banks are already hard at work on that question.

Wells Fargo touts Control Tower as a tool that enables customers to see what their payment card details are connected to, such as a mobile wallet or subscription service. That can be useful when a consumer has multiple gadgets such as a smartwatch and an Alexa-enabled device that are capable of making payments.

“Our customers’ lives are complex and getting more complex, and devices are an important part of that,” Soccorsy said.

Meantime, Bank of America has achieved early success with Erica, the bank’s artificial-intelligence-based virtual assistant.

It announced in early November that 4 million customers now use Erica to search transaction history, view account and routing numbers, send money through Zelle, pay bills and manage payments cards.

What Bank of America and Wells Fargo have created could very well become a standard for other banks to follow in the development of future products and services.

PwC’s Hoffman said virtual reality could be that next frontier banks tackle. As he mentioned, the technology already exists, though it has not yet moved from home entertainment into everyday retail applications.

“Your starting point should be, ‘What is the customer trying to do?’ ” Hoffman said. “If you look at it through that lens, usually there are close adjacencies in those areas. What are the other experiences that I’m having? Where do those banking aspects fit into more broadly what the bank’s customers are trying to do?”

He envisions a scenario where a consumers views a house through a virtual reality set, and then connects to a digital bank representative to start the mortgage process.

“If someone is starting the homebuying process” in virtual reality, then “it would be a natural extension into the lending part to enable the buying of the home,” Hoffman said.

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