12 April 2018
Augmented reality is not something you’d expect to find in a van dealership. This is very much the case, though, as Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is halfway through a six-month trial of augmented reality headsets with its network which, put simply, are hi-tech spectacles worn by technicians, capable of beaming sights and sounds from under the bonnet to fellow staff or even customers based elsewhere.
It isn’t unknown for dealerships to employ video technology or send pictures or sound files – but the idea behind the headsets is to make the service and repair process more efficient. If they come across a more complex job, technicians can dial-in remote help, whether it be from VW’s technical centre at Milton Keynes; sister sites within a dealer group; or, if they’re field-based, they can call back to HQ. The person at the other end sees and hears precisely what the technician – who still has both hands free – does, so they can point, touch and be guided through the job, even using the system to digitally highlight specific areas of the vehicle.
“What it enables us to do is effectively be in the van centres,” says Paul Anderson, service operations manager at VWCVs, “sometimes, the technicians need a hand, and the technical centre can only really do so much when you can’t see what’s going on. When there’s a call going on, you can see what they can see, they can see you on the screen, you can put images in front of them, you can be talking about a component or something and say, ‘I’m talking about this area here’ and draw circles around it and things like that. That’s the difference.”
The headsets are built by a company called Realwear, which supplies them to numerous industries, including the construction sector. As well as the digital element, the specs themselves are designed to withstand hands-on environments. “They’ll stay on your head, and they’re pretty rough and ready in terms of how robust they are,” adds Anderson, “also, workshops can be quite noisy environments, so they have a noise cancellation system – a sort of second microphone – that blanks out all of that so you, the technician, can hear what [the other party] is saying, and you’re not getting too much feedback from the workshop at our end.”
The manufacturer began trialling the headsets in January and 10 dealers initially signed up – though Anderson says it has since expanded to more – and the plan is to start rolling them out en masse around July. It will be at the discretion of individual retailers as to whether or not they adopt the technology and they will be required to invest in it themselves. They will also need a 4G connection in order for the system to work but, according to Anderson, most of them will already have such a facility.
Early opinion from dealers involved in the trial has been positive. John McNally, service director at Cordwallis, which operates commercial vehicle dealerships in the South East, is a big fan of the headsets: “If we have a problem job that we’ve never seen before, or we’re having issues, we can link to technical [in Milton Keynes]. There’s a chat room we can go into, they can see the problem you’re having, say ‘look down there’ or whatever, and give you complete guidance. The other thing that works well for us is with the mobile service van. If the technician says ‘I’ve never seen this before’ or ‘I’m not quite sure about this’, he can register back to the guy in the workshop and say ‘have you seen this before? What’s your advice?’ and they talk via a video link, which is brilliant.”
McNally thinks the system has just as much, if not more worth when it’s used to communicate with customers: “We deal with quite a few big fleet customers, and what you find is that a lot of the fleet managers are never on site, so we Skype call them [directly from the headset]. We say ‘you’ve asked us to look at this; this is what we’ve found’. Even though we use video VHC [Vehicle Health Checks] on all the vehicles anyway, you only see one end of the story, whereas with the Skype call, the customer’s interacting with the technician and saying ‘right, I can see what you’re saying now’. By having that conversation, explaining the situation and showing them, it creates a lot of transparency and trust with the customers, and we can say ‘as you can see Mr Customer, this is it”.
Assuming the technology continues to be successful, VWCVs is planning to employ it in other, non-technical applications, such as training staff and showcasing some of the more physical aspects of its products. “We’ve got the National Learning Centre at Milton Keynes, and we do tremendous amounts of training from there,” says Anderson, “it’s great, but sometimes there’s an inconvenience to the technician and the business; you’ve got to take somebody out for the day when, actually, what you could be doing, is helping them on-site. If you want one-to-many or one-to-one coaching, then you can actually talk them through [digitally] and answer questions. You can say things like ‘OK, you want to know a little bit more about this part? Everyone walk round to that area and we’ll talk about it’.
“We could also take someone through a new product. You can walk around and show areas of the vehicle that you think may be appealing or relevant to somebody’s business – so if somebody wants to know how much space there is in the back or how something works. Part of what we’re doing within the pilot is to see whether or not we can bring some converters on board, because ultimately, those products are very complex, so we sometimes need to support that with a diagnosis – and the demonstration of how it works.”