How Augmented Reality Is Changing Sales and Service
Augmented reality is appearing in a range of business applications, which means it's coming soon to RV dealerships. Now is the time to consider ways you can use this technology for competitive advantages.
By Mel Beckman
Most of us have a passing familiarity with the concept of virtual reality (VR), the immersive simulation environments that use 3-D goggles to make you feel like you're present in another world. VR started with first-person shooter games (e.g., Call of Duty), and then advanced to other entertainment realms such as stage performance (Guitar Hero) and sandbox play (Minecraft, a virtual land where users can create their own worlds). Eventually VR made its way into serious industrial endeavors, such as flight training (X-Plane) and medicine (e.g., for surgical training, pain management, physical therapy and more). VR goggles, or headsets, can be as simple as a smartphone slotted into the $15 Google Cardboard head strap, or as sophisticated as the high-definition $800 HTC Vive.
VR has its limitations, though. While immersed, you lose conscious perception of your own body, as your hands and feet vanish in the virtual world. This leads to real physical problems,such as a queasy stomach, or dangerous impacts with real world objects, such as furniture and walls. But a close cousin of VR, augmented reality (AR), eliminates all these problems by overlaying the virtual world onto your view of objective reality. Instead of being totally immersed in another world, you see a mixed reality: the real world combined with computer-generated text and graphics.
A well-known example of AR use is last yearu2019s Poku00e9monGo craze. This popular smartphone app had people wandering through parks, neighborhoods and urban areas in pursuit of game characters. The game uses the smartphone's GPS for users' real locations, and AR to bring up the game characters on the phone screen. As users gaze at the real world through their phone screen, the game characters are overlaid in their view.
VR is still something of a rarity in the industrial world, with Keystone RV being an early adopter via its VR goggles that give dealerships a 360-degree preview of floorplans. AR, however,is taking off rapidly, bringing advanced computing power to any worksite,whether that is technician maintenance, product design, or customer sales. Even the next version of Apple's iPhone and iPad operating system (OS), to be released later this year, is paving the way for AR to become more mainstream.The OS will include AR Kit, an app-development framework that lets developers create augmented reality apps. One such app is a virtual measuring tape that lets users measure real-world items by selecting a starting point and pulling the phone away from it. A readout on the phone provides live measurements as the phone is moved.
As AR products rapidly evolve,they're bound to impact RV sales and service soon, if for no other reason than they amplify the capabilities of so many employees. In vehicle maintenance, AR overlays technical documentation and guidance right onto components being serviced, while the technician is working on them. And AR can rapidly train new technicians to perform even complex maintenance tasks.
On the sales front, AR gives a salesperson instant access to vehicle specifications and features, eliminating the need to memorize this data, and letting the sales rep give customers a more knowledgeable product tour. Sales reps also become highly mobile, armed with immense amounts of data and insights about potential buyers, letting them customize products, services and solutions to buyers' needs.
AR can even help in the back office, with accounting and finance, where these professionals can trade multi-monitor desktop displays for a lightweight headset that combines transactional functions with data collection processes, such as document scanning. This can turn the traditional hours-long deal-completion process into a few minutes of information input and automated calculations.
To get ready for AR, you need to know what capabilities are available today and where AR technologies, such as viewing glasses and cameras, are headed. You'll then be well positioned to begin merging AR capabilities into your business, which will make you both more competitive and more profitable.
AR Modes: Point of View Versus Piece of Glass
To make your understanding of AR real, as it were, lets jump right into what AR looks like to the user. There are two classes of AR interaction, generally termed Point of View (PoV) and Piece of Glass (PoG). PoV AR uses a visual headset, in the form of digital eyeglasses, to overlay information onto everything the user looks at, using a camera and motion sensors to track head movements and interpret the visual field.
With PoG, the user employs a familiar digital device such as a smartphone or tablet, which uses its built-in camera to "see" whatever a user points the device at and then generates whatever text or graphic overlay is needed to give the user more detail about that visual field. Figure 2 shows a tablet overlaying product data on live video of the product itself, with the AR application identifying the product automatically and pulling up specific details.
Each AR mode has its place.
PoV, by dint of requiring special hardware, is more expensive, but that cost is easily justified by productivity improvements for repeated tasks, where time is money. PoV makes the user more efficient at these tasks, and that efficiency improves over time as the user gains experience.
PoG is inexpensive - since nearly everyone has a smart phone or tablet - and is thus better suited to impromptu,random tasks, rather than dedicated procedures. A sales rep might use PoG to guide a customer through a product tour, pulling up on-the-spot data about vehicle features or capabilities. Later, the rep can use the same device to kick off sales functions, such as closing a deal.
AR in Action
AR is already widely used in the automotive industry for maintenance and training. Termed Automated Maintenance and Repair (AMAR), AR replaces traditional maintenance techniques that use manuals and printed instructions to perform an assembly task. A PoV AR application puts this same documentation in each technicians' field of view,overlaying the work in progress. This lets techs quickly review the steps for a procedure, call up technical data such as specific measurement values, and even interact with automated test tools, such as electrical and pressure sensors.
And because users keep their hands on the work instead of constantly shifting attention to a paper maintenance manual, they complete each task more quickly. With the addition of automated checklists, techs can finish the work more reliably too, since each step must be confirmed to the AR application.
For more than six years, BMW service engineers have worn head-mounted displays while working on cars, using AR to step them through tool selection and repair processes. The system automatically identifies and visually highlights components being worked on,clarifying complex objects and systems otherwise difficult to visualize on paper. The AR application also helps the technician manage complexity by displaying data at different levels in the system being worked on. At one level, only external covers may appear, but the technician can easily drill down to internal layers showing electrical and mechanical subcomponents.
BMW uses the same system to train new mechanics, shortening training times and letting students proceed at their own pace. Traditional "book learning" makes it tough to remember every detail of a system being studied. AR's imagery, enhanced with audio and tactile cues,enhances assimilation of information, resulting in improved understanding and retention.
Since BMW introduced its AR technician aids, a revolution has occurred in wireless technology, moving most of the computation out of the headset and into a nearby powerful computing unit. The result is much lighter headgear, little different from a pair of ordinary reading glasses. The latest systems are compact and comfortable for long-term use.
AR can do more than just enhance traditional technician functions. If technicians get stumped on a problem, they can tap into a lifeline assistant - either a senior tech or a factory expert. AR enables collaboration by including live interaction between multiple users who share views and online access during a troubleshooting event.
Vehicle showrooms have been quick to adopt AR to reel in customers and close deals. This has countered the drop-in showroom walk-ins as customers do more online research at home. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average number of showroom visits prior to purchase has dropped from four to one in recent years. What's more, fewer customers want to test-drive vehicles - less than half, according to a DME automotive study.
AR gives customers a new reason to see the dealer, with no special equipment required. Customers use their own phone or tablet with an app downloaded at the dealership as an AR window into showroom displays. For example, customers could pull up engine specs for a particular model and compare it with their current RV. Or a customer could "see inside" the structure of the RV to visualize its superior safety features.
Ford has beta tested an AR showroom app with good results. The app simply highlights vehicle features. Interested customers are free to use the app to roam around without a salesperson tagging along, with in-app utilities to calculate loans and schedule a test drive. Mercedes-Benz took AR to the next level, exploiting it to showcase features otherwise impossible to demonstrate inside the showroom: collision prevention and intelligent parking assist. Porsche and Ferrari let customers look at areal car while changing its paint job to see which color they like best - from any angle. Showroom AR is just beginning, so expect to see many advances in short order.
Getting Started in AR
You can get started in AR today with very little investment. An excellent beginning is to take an online course to learn the various technical aspects of AR. One such course is Pluralsight's "Getting Started with Augmented Reality" (http://bit.ly/Pluralsight-Getting-Started-AR). In two and a half hours of short video training segments, the course covers AR basics, marketing aspects and future directions. You'll gain familiarity with AR terminology and see many high-value demonstrations.
With that background, you'll be ready to start experimenting with AR. Begin with PoG apps that run on your phone or tablet without special hardware. There are thousands of these, which you can find using the search term "augmented." Pick candidate apps in a subject that interests you. Personally, I like one called SatFinder 3D, which lets you find and track satellites in the sky. Your objective with this experimentation is to learn how AR apps function, which will give you ideas for your own AR applications.
At some point, you will be ready to graduate to the hands-free AR experience with PoV glasses or goggles. At the low end are the smartphone-based goggles, which consist of a holder for your smartphone, a pair of lenses to provide a stereo view, and an opening for the phone's camera to photograph the outside world. This last feature is what makes goggles mixed-reality AR rather than fully immersive VR. Merge VR is a popular $50 device in this category. Although you'll feel ridiculous wearing this device in public, it's a good idea to get comfortable with inexpensive AR goggles before investing in a chic, lightweight but expensive pair.
The high end of PoV AR eyewear gets expensive fast, starting at about $700 for Epson's Moverio line and running to$3,000 for Microsoft's HoloLens, with options at $500 increments in between. These glasses sport a camera with ambient light sensor, HD binocular see-through virtual monitors, and position sensing.
Once you've become familiar with all these aspects of AR hardware and software, how do you get it into your business? The easiest way will be through vendors, such as vehicle and engine manufacturers, and accessory suppliers, such as HVAC and power generation. These companies have a vested in interest in making their products easier to sell, support and maintain. You can also hire a software firm to develop a custom AR app for your business, just like you'd outsource other web or mobile device applications. The price tag for development at this level is in the tens of thousands of dollars, so you want to be sure you're proficient with AR features and interactions before going down this road.
Use Your Imagination
The rapid acceptance of AR in a range of enterprise applications means it's soon to appear in RV dealerships. AR is the next competitive dealership advantage, so start exploring and strategizing now.