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Is Augmented Reality coming to your dealership?

These days, keeping up with the advances in digital technology seems impossible. We can only imagine. So, let’s have some fun. Is the following science fiction or real?

A service technician has just come aboard to check out a problem with our inboard. He drops down into the engine compartment, points his cell phone camera at the engine, dons a pair of special goggles and quickly identifies the problem. He starts repairs. No thick manual. No laptop. He no longer needs either. That’s because he’s seeing everything he needs to know, including detailed and illustrated how-to instructions, on his smartphone’s screen and in his goggles.

Sounds like Star Wars, right? Sorry, it’s real. It’s Augmented Reality and it could be coming to your dealership in the future.

Just what is AR? If you’ve watched NFL football on TV, you’ve already seen it. It’s those blue or yellow line-of-scrimmage and first down lines you see “painted” on your TV picture. In other words, AR is simply the overlay of digital images or text on a live video feed picture. (AR is not Virtual Reality, like in video games.) AR involves a real time video.

According to Kristina Grifantini, assistant editor at MIT’s Technology Review (TechnologyReview.com), Columbia University has already developed an AR system for diagnosing and repairing the many electric, hydraulic, and mechanical components in light armored vehicles. Testing is ongoing by U.S. Marine Corps mechanics. So far, results indicate mechanics find problems and begin maintenance in nearly half the previous normal time. Imagine if your service department could do that – possibly producing twice the billable work during normal hours!

In the Marine Corps tests, the mechanics have a head-worn display and the AR system shows 3-D arrows pointing to relevant components, text instructions, floating labels and warnings, even animated 3-D models of the appropriate tools. An Android-powered G1 smartphone on the mechanic's wrist provides touchscreen controls for cueing up the next sequence of instructions. The idea is to give the users the "information they need to find and fix problems in a way that is going to be more efficient and accurate," says Steven Feiner, director of the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Laboratory at Columbia, working with Steven Henderson, an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy's Department of Systems Engineering.

What about AR’s commercial uses? They’re still in their infancy but the potential is huge. Cell phones and their cameras is the key to expansion. Companies in retail and travel are reportedly already funding AR applications development for smartphones and tablet computers. Suppose, for example, your sales team could point a cell phone at a boat model in the showroom and show a prospect all the interior configurations and color options just as if they were right there. Or, point the smartphone camera at the prospect and “virtually” put him in the boat? It’s the phone’s camera and virtual images combined that show what is seen on the phone’s screen in real time. If the prospect isn’t actually in the showroom, then send it all to his cell phone. After all, nearly 66 million Americans already owned smartphones as of Jan. 1, 2011.

The technology all exists. Applications, as well as a need for standardization of applications, are where things must go now. Some say that could take several years. But, I’m reminded there is Moore’s Law (after the founder of Intel) that essentially says the processing power of a computer chip doubles every 18 months. Thus, each new generation of smartphones will boast even faster processing, more sensors and improved video capabilities. It’s fun to imagine the many benefits that AR could provide in all dealerships, perhaps sooner than we think.

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