Fidelity researchers dive into virtual reality with StockCity

Experiments by the investing giant raise a question: Can virtual reality do for investing what real reality couldn't?

Nov 19, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Trevor Hunnicutt

Every consumer business hopes to create a brand that's on your mind. That's not enough for Fidelity: they want their brand to be on your head and in your eyes, too.

The massive mutual fund manager, retirement powerhouse and brokerage firm on Wednesday rolled out a virtual-reality interface for investors to explore the stock market like it were the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

The invention — StockCity — is the latest investment in wearable technology by Fidelity Labs, the Boston-based research and development unit for Fidelity. It's deployed in a version for Oculus Rift, a crowd-funded virtual-reality headset, as well as a version that works in web browsers.

Fidelity is trying to get its foot in the door of every big tech trend today — from “big data” to robotics to “gamification” — whether they pan out or not. Executives say they spend $2.5 billion a year on technology, though that figure that includes outlays beyond research and development. Last year, the unit created investing apps for Google Glass and the “smartwatch” Pebble.

It's unclear whether Fidelity's new interface — which renders American commerce as a vast, impersonal business district populated by skyscrapers — will catch on.

And they admit they have no clue. Fidelity is releasing this early version of StockCity in part so they can get feedback from consumers.

METAPHORS

Technology lives and dies by metaphors like the following: We may not send many letters anymore, but we access emails by clicking on an “envelope.” And at first blush, cities from Detroit to Palo Alto, Calif., seem like a perfect representation of the successes and failures of American business.

“Metaphors provide us a way to understand something and gives us a different view of things,” said Hadley Stern, the vice president of Fidelity Labs. “Taking that metaphor and placing it in a city could allow people to understand things more quickly and have insights more readily.”

In the city, neighborhoods represent sectors. Building height represents closing price, width shows shares outstanding, depth is volume traded, and the color of the roof represents whether the price went up or down yesterday. When the market as a whole declines, it rains.

Fidelity's city looks much as it does on the Web version, except with the headset on it's all encompassing. And for whatever reason, it made this reporter a little dizzy.

If virtual-reality headsets catch on, Fidelity wants to know what it can do with technology to give consumers a better view of the markets, according to Mr. Stern.

Dozens of platforms — including those from Kapitall Inc. to Motif Investing Inc. — are attempting to bring the seductive appeal of data visualization and videogames — to an industry better known for the unreadable prospectus, the incomprehensible chart and the fine-print tables that filled the business sections of newspapers when those publications had pages to spare.

Those antediluvian tools intimidate investors as much as they inform them.

Discount brokers are particularly keen on making consumer-facing tech enhancements. Self-directed traders account for a sizeable portion of the discount brokerage business, and the firm earns transaction commissions when those customers trade.

In 2013, Fidelity clients executed an average of 403,000 commissionable trades each day. The largest segment of that comes from its retail brokerage unit as opposed to other clients, such as financial advisers.

Fidelity appears first among investment firms to develop an application for the virtual-reality headset, which has not yet been released commercially.

But other financial services firms are making moves: As part of the experiments in its San Francisco-based technology innovation lab, Wells Fargo explored the possibility that customers might use Oculus to talk with a bank teller without leaving the comfort of their homes, according to a September report in the Wall Street Journal.

Neither Wells Fargo & Co. nor Oculus VR Inc., the headset manufacturer, responded to a request for comment.

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