Photos: Barclays flagship branch goes high-tech with Microsoft Surface
We visited the new flagship branch of Barclays in Piccadilly Circus, London, which is stuffed to the gills with technology -- including the UK's only Microsoft Surfaces
There are six little words that strike terror into the heart of anyone forced to utter them: "I'm just popping to the bank." While stood in the dejected queue, shuffling forwards a millimetre every five minutes, staring at the broken paying-in machine and wondering why there's eight windows but only two tellers, we start to ponder: why does going to the bank have to be such a chore? Being the gadget-crazy Cravers we are, we wonder why technology hasn't transformed the high-street bank the way it's transformed so many other parts of our lives. We were overjoyed, then, to see how Barclays is pointing the way towards stress-free banking of the future with its new flagship branch in Piccadilly Circus: multiple types of cash machine, free Internet access, staff with tablet PCs and, if you can afford it, a chance to finger a Microsoft Surface.
The branch is located where Burger King used to be if, like us, you use the fast-food-outlet method of navigation. It opened in December 2008, and is rammed with technology to make the banking experience much less of a chore.
When you walk in, you'll spot a crowd of cash machines to your right, and a large interactive video wall to your left. The wall shows off Being:London, which allows you to look for things to do in the city. It's totally unrelated to banking, but is geared towards the many tourists milling about the West End in brightly coloured windbreakers.
Floor staff with Samsung Q1 Ultra tablet PCs can help you with simple tasks, or you can head for the counter, where you don't need to shout because there aren't any screens. There's a mezzanine level for chats with personal bankers, free Internet access, and plasma screens flicking between BBC News 24 and Barclays ads.
If you're a premier customer -- ie, if you're rich or daft enough to fork out extra for the privilege -- then you can access the premier lounge. Here businessfolk can use the meeting room and business facilities, and also take advantage of three Microsoft Surfaces.
We first saw the Surface way back in 2007, and more recently at CES in January. But these are the first of the touchscreen tables in the UK that are available for the public to touch, swipe and tap.
Sadly, privacy issues mean that you can't yet slap your bank card down on the Surface to access your account. Instead, you can call up information about Barclays. This includes videos, which can be resized by moving your fingers apart, and interactive leaflets, which can be moved and rotated with a swipe or a swoop of your fingertip.
We can't wait for these technologies to trickle down into our local branch, but we're not holding our breath. Click through the pictures to see just how much better than your local branch the flagship Barclays is, as we check out the clever uses of technology, find out how the counter is kept secure, and go beneath the Surface.
As well as four standard cash machines, there are two account-management consoles, a change-deposit machine, and a foreign-currency ATM. The paying-in machine gets a high-tech makeover compared to the standard drop-in-an-envelope models, reading your cheques and notes to ensure the right amount gets credited.
Greeters armed with Samsung Q1 Ultra tablet PCs can do simple tasks such as change your address. If you need more in-depth assistance, they will zap your details to a personal banker's pager, so you can be whisked off to a private area without having to explain your needs all over again.
To use Being:London, you tap on the touchscreen consoles to search for points of interest, which will then be displayed on the huge wall of 20 24x42in screens. The coloured balls swooping around the screen pull mentions of local events and attractions from Web sites and blogs, creating a kind of visual tag cloud of local buzz. Lawks.
This is the new organic-style queuing system, which will be rolled out to other branches. Look at those tourists: can't you just tell they're having warm and fuzzy feelings about being in such a fluid queue?
Once you reach the counter, you'll notice there are no screens. The money is secured and only dispenses the right amount of cash for each customer, so there's no danger of someone vaulting the counter and cleaning out the cash drawers.
This is the premier banking lounge, where the great and the good and the obscenely rich can bank and also use the facilities. There aren't any pens chained to desks up here, we can tell you. What you will find, however, is three Microsoft Surfaces.
At the moment, the Surface only displays information rather than allowing you to actually do your banking. But clever features include the option to input your telephone number, so the Surface can text you the information you've been looking at.
Is it just us, or does the arrangement of the premier lounge conjure up images of evil cabals getting together to plot the end of the world? We're convinced there's trapdoors under each of those chairs, leading straight into a shark tank.