Coming soon: A virtual world for your real stock portfolio

StockCity: A virtual look at your stock portfolio
StockCity: A virtual look at your stock portfolio   

Will a virtual visualization make a real difference in the way you manage your portfolio?

That's what Fidelity Investments is betting on with the beta launch of "StockCity," a virtual reality platform that lets customers zoom through their portfolio as if they were on a helicopter winding around New York City, with stocks depicted as buildings in sector-specific neighborhoods.

The size of the buildings is determined by the closing stock price (height); the number of shares outstanding (width); and the 90-day average volume (depth). As a result, Bank of America becomes a low-lying office park, and Tesla a gaunt—but soaring—skyscraper.



The aim, according to Fidelity Labs VP Hadley Stern, is to build a product that helps clients better grasp how their stock holdings stack up.

The prototype, inspired by the skyline of Fidelity's home city Boston, was released Wednesday after 18 months of development. Customers can fiddle with a desktop version before the Oculus VR headsets—on which Fidelity developed the virtual simulation—become more commonplace for gamers and investors alike.

For managing money, Stern said, "competing and playing may be an option, but maybe visualizing in and of itself is the answer."

But all that is open to discussion, Stern said, noting that customer feedback will be key in shaping the final product. After unveiling the platform in Las Vegas at the International Traders Expo, Fidelity plans to host a hands-on session for active traders to provide their feedback. Some possible additions: building heights that recalibrate in real time; birds circling a building if there's significant Twitter activity; doors that let users "inside" a company to evaluate its products.

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The company wouldn't say what it spent to create StockCity. It says it spends a total $2.5 billion on technology each year, including multiple projects underway in the research & development unit.

To be sure, many projects the lab develops never see daylight. Fidelity Labs has chased some experiments that ended up being fleeting fads (remember the iGoogle homepage?); other movements, like that of Second Life, it let pass entirely.

"We cannot predict what will take off," said Stern, who estimated that about 50 percent of the group's projects end up in use. But "it isn't experimentation for experimentation's sake."

But both wearables and virtual reality will be part of larger movements, Stern said. Fidelity has built investing products for both Google Glass and the Pebble Watch; it is actively adapting information about customer behavior from those existing apps to build products for the forthcoming Apple Watch.

For instance: A client may use a watch to check a ticker or make a quick trade, but not to rebalance a portfolio.

"We look at our smartphones 200 times a day," said Stern, estimating "about half of those times could be served by wearable device."

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It's still unclear exactly what role virtual reality will serve, and when exactly it will pick up steam. Oculus does not have a consumer product available, though a new Samsung mobile VR headset using Oculus technology will be out soon. Engineers have purchased some 180,000 Oculus developers' kits, according to a spokesperson, but the company does not have an estimate of how much content is being created on it.

For now, Fidelity's VR effort is but an experiment. Stern said the Oculus headsets will need to slim down and solve a "vertigo" problem: The depth perception causes some users (including yours truly) to become nauseous when they take it off and re-enter the real world.

"All the bits and pieces have to be in place for something to take off."

So Fidelity's working on putting its bit into place.