Sci-fi banking is coming to a branch near you

Interactive info, personalised ads, biometric ID checks: science is making them a reality
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Biometrics, "predictive" computing and sensor tracking - welcome to the bank of the future.

Your entry through the door of a branch will trigger an electronic "Big Brother" system that not only watches you via electronic sensors but anticipates your immediate banking demands, monitors your account and prepares a sales pitch on particular financial products.

At Accenture Technology Labs in Sophia Antipolis, just outside Nice in France, an international team of scientists are trying to turn the banking industry's dreams into reality. The lab is currently building a bank branch that aims to perfect the art of customer service, and so boost sales and profits.

Scientists are working on a sensor that would register a customer's arrival using a microchipped bank debit card. This would alert a personal account executive to acquaint themselves with the customer's portfolio of products and a record of their recent visits.

Sensors would also allow the bank to track customers' movements within the branch. As they approach a plasma screen promoting bank products, a personalised greeting appears. If they pick up a leaflet on pensions, say, the sensors can note this, since the leaflets themselves carry tiny chips. And as they queue, the plasma screen changes its ad in response to the tag on their leaflet.

Just before they get to the counter, a biometric ID check sweeps over them so that, on reaching the window, all their details are already on the cashier's screen. Fill in a form during the enquiry, and it will be written on "intelligent" paper using a digital pen. Information is automatically transferred into the bank's system, reducing paperwork and allowing staff to spend more time with customers.

Elsewhere in the branch, an "interactive" wall offers general financial advice using touch-screen technology. In this way, customers can relate queries on savings and pensions, for example, to their own accounts.

This might all sound like the plot of a sci-fi film. But the use of biometrics has already been trialled for customer security. Nationwide building society tested an iris recognition system at ATMs in the late 1990s, although costs proved prohibitive.

"We thought it worked really well but we needed the rest of industry to come on board to make it affordable," says Nationwide spokesman Alan Oliver. "Other banks might come round to the idea once the technology is being used for other areas such as ID cards."

In the meantime, futuristic ideas are already bringing benefits to customers and giving staff more time to focus on improving service. For example, a number of banks, including First Direct, Barclays and Cahoot, use text messaging to alert people to looming overdrafts.

New technology is also helping to improve the security of bank payment systems. Co-op shoppers in Oxford can now pay for their weekly groceries with an electronic scan of their fingerprint, using a "pay and touch" service linked to their bank accounts. This trial may be small scale, but a similar system already operating in the US has more than two million users.

In February, the Home Office minister Andy Burnham warned that identity fraud was costing the UK an estimated £1.7bn every year. Individuals' personal details are used by criminals to gain access to bank accounts, run up bills and create false documents to carry out benefit fraud.

But while iris recognition and fingerprint technology could cut fraud, banks face a long struggle to get customers onside. Concerns over the planned national ID card scheme underline the difficulties of reconciling security issues with civil liberties.

Most of the major British banks are keeping a watching brief on developments such as those at the Accenture Labs, but none have yet come forward with financial backing. However, an as yet unnamed major French bank is considering the touch-screen wall.

The French researchers say the most important element of tomorrow's banking will be customer co-operation.

"This technology can be intrusive and, for that reason, it would only really be workable if customers agreed to take part in the first place," says Emmanuel Viale of Accenture. "Customers would have to be fully informed at the outset about how the technology worked."

In return for their co-operation, it is likely that banks will offer customers a perk, such as a personal account manager to look after their affairs.

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