Dutch bank

ABN Amro

( ABN) became the first European bank to establish a presence in Second Life when it opened its virtual branch last week, raising the possibility of a lending service being made available in the virtual world.

ABN Amro is the latest real-world enterprise to extend its brand into Second Life, the 3-D online world created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab. The bank joins the ranks of

Dell

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,

Cisco

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,

Toyota

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and

Sun Microsystems

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among major corporations that have set up homesteads in the virtual world.

"Second Life is an example of a new-generation Internet site that is rapidly gaining popularity and where we want to have a presence from an early stage," Wietze Reehoorn, board member of ABN Amro, said in a statement. "It adds an extra dimension to the way in which we experience the Internet. It makes Internet-based communication with customers more direct and personal."

The Netherlands' largest financial service company has created a virtual reflection of ABN Amro's real-life branches. The bank offers financial information and advice to avatars who visit its floating destination. ABN Amro plans to organize seminars within Second Life for specific target groups, including virtual business starters, new graduates and preferred banking clients. The bank also hopes to use the virtual world as a tool for recruiting new staff.

While banking services are not yet available, ABN Amro has said those services may become available at a later date. As corporate bonds have

already been introduced in Second Life, it seems likely that virtual residents may soon be able to procure virtual loans or create Second Life savings accounts. Tallies of Linden, the in-world currency of Second Life, are currently displayed as an inventory amount on a user's account. The addition of banking services to the virtual world would mean that residents could deposit Linden into accounts and accrue interest. In addition, potential entrepreneurs could borrow Linden from a bank to start an in-world business.

ABN's foray into Second Life should not come as a surprise, especially for a company that seems to embrace innovative technologies. Previously, ABN Amro was the first bank to allow its customers to receive their account balances using

Microsoft's

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Windows Messenger software. In 2007, the company plans to roll out biometric voice recognition for telephone banking, where a caller's voice will be identified instead of requiring a PIN or access code for an account.

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ABN Amro's virtual bank branch

However, ABN isn't the first bank to establish itself in Second Life. In September 2005,

Wells Fargo

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launched a pilot project on Stagecoach Island, its private island residence, with the goal of educating young adults on financial responsibility.

Residents have the opportunity to sky-dive and fly hovercrafts, among other activities, on Stagecoach Island. While many activities on the island are free, users can only gain access to other experiences, such as clubbing or shopping, by managing their virtual money. Residents can earn Linden by answering banking trivia questions at the Virtual Learning Lounge. The purpose, Wells Fargo says, is to educate young adults on managing their money.

"The young adult years are a critical time for financial education because many of these young people are leaving home and becoming financially independent for the first time," says Wells Fargo's chief marketing officer, Sylvia Reynolds. "Stagecoach Island is a contemporary platform where we can educate young people about one of the most important topics to their future success -- their finances -- in a highly interactive, comfortable and fun environment."

While ABN Amro's private island is open to the general public of Second Life, the Wells Fargo islands are accessible only by those who have received invitations from the bank. With ABN Amro giving indications that it plans to offer lending in the Second Life world, it will be interesting to see whether competition develops between the two banks.

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.