Here’s How Fidelity Is Experimenting With Virtual Reality

December 6, 2016, 8:58 PM UTC
A Fidelity Investments store logo is pictured on a building in Boca Raton, Florida
A Fidelity Investments store logo is pictured on a building in Boca Raton, Florida March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTSB9TE
Photograph by Carlo Allegri — Reuters

Virtual reality may be predominantly viewed as a new and immersive way to fly spaceships in digitally rendered galaxies or watch movies in 360 degrees. For Fidelity Investments, however, the cutting-edge tech is more than just a new source of amusement—it’s a potential new way for people to interact with their money.

The financial service giant’s research arm, Fidelity Labs, said Tuesday that it built a new business app designed for the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. Essentially, the app is a prototype for what it believes could be a simpler way for human resources managers to keep track of employees and their retirement plans.

The VR app is part of Fidelity’s slow-and-steady foray into virtual reality, which kicked off in 2014 when the company built an app for investors to keep track of their portfolios. That app, built for Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift VR headset, showed investors their various performing portfolio stocks in the form of digital buildings, with each tower and its corresponding height representing how well they were performing.

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Fidelity hoped that by conveying often complex financial information in the form of a virtual representation, people would “better understand their investments so they would make better investments,” said Fidelity Labs senior vice president and director Sean Belka.

With investor documents, 401K retirement plans, and other financial paperwork often being a confusing mess to the layperson, Belka explained that VR’s focus on compelling visuals could be a way for people to better digest complex information.

Belka likened the rise of VR to the rise of data visualization tools like those sold by companies like Tableau (DATA). Those tools take raw business data and converts them into more appealing graphics and charts so that management and business people can better absorb the information.

Virtual reality represents the next step in showing off data in more captivating ways than being presented in the form of a two-dimensional spreadsheet or document, he explained.

In a demo of the new HR app, users are shown a simple looking digital cityscape with several skyscrapers, with one representing their company and the others competitors. Compared to state-of-the art VR games, the graphics are more primitive and less colorful, resembling more of an old-school video game than the latest Sim City, the popular city management computer game.

But being rather drab was the point, Belka explained, as Fidelity didn’t want the app to resemble a video game—the app is a professional affair.

Once users pick their tower/company, the get transported to a tan boardroom that looks like a college lecture class. Users stand in front of a small table where they can request to see a visual representation of all of their employees sitting throughout the audience. The employees are divided in seven sections, with each section representing how many years they have worked at the company.

The employees are either green or red in color, with green representing that the employee is successfully preparing for retirement and has a solid preforming investment plan, and red indicating an employee with potential retirement hiccups down the road.

Although HR managers typically have access to this type of investment data on their employees, presenting the data in a more immersive matter could help them better digest the abstract information. There’s something “visceral” about seeing the data presented in the form of a three-dimensional graphic that users can manipulate that makes Belka believe virtual reality could eventually be a hit with businesses.

Still, Belka concedes it is the early days of virtual reality, as recent industry analyst sales estimates of VR headsets have fallen well short of initial projections. The high price of leading VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive that sell from $600 to $800 coupled with a dearth or engaging VR apps have made it hard for the technology to catch on with consumers.

Additionally, more VR headsets being introduced to the market like Google’s (GOOG) Daydream View, makes sticking with a preferred-hardware partner more difficult. Belka said he doesn’t know which VR headset will eventually be a market leader, so Fidelity will be building apps for all devices.

As of now, virtual reality represents a small portion of Fidelity Labs’ annual $3 billion research budget, with technologies like artificial intelligence and the blockchain distributed ledger taking precedent, he said. Fidelity Labs previously built a heavy-duty investment app for the Internet connected Google Glass eyewear device, but has stopped doing so with Google Glass failing to catch on with consumers. Fidelity Labs will be building “more lightweight” apps for VR devices that don’t require as much staff to develop and are less feature-packed in order to give business customers a taste of what’s possible in the future.

Belka said that Fidelity Labs has tested the new VR app with roughly a dozen unnamed HR customers over the past month. Some of the East Coast and Midwest clients Fidelity tested the app with had never experienced virtual reality prior to being shown the app. Some people were excited about the possibilities the app showed could be done through virtual reality, but the general consensus was that this is only a prototype and not something ready for primetime yet.

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With popular video game rendering tools like Unity (which Fidelity used to build the app) being available, it’s easier for companies to quickly create and improve VR apps, and Belka expects more VR apps from Fidelity down the road. But the rollout of these VR apps will be steady and measured.

“We are taking a somewhat realistic view,” said Belka on Fidelity’s approach to virtual reality. “We’re not looking to go to scale tomorrow.”

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