At this year’s Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile device conference and show, virtual reality and augmented reality were everywhere. Aside from a photo of Mark Zuckerberg walking amidst a sea of oblivious audience members strapped into VR headsets, companies like Samsung, LG, and HTC were all keen to show off their latest VR gear.
Virtual reality isn’t just for video games. There’s been growing interest in the field service industry on how companies might take advantage of it. First, however, it’s important to step back and clarify the distinction between virtual reality and augmented reality. As their names suggest, virtual reality immerses the user in a completely virtual environment, while augmented reality keeps users in their existing world and simply enhances it. Both could have serious benefits for the industry by improving the two key metrics that are important to all field service managers: first-time fix rates and average repair time. They can also benefit staff training and skills shortages.
Field service engineers, wearing a special headset, for example, could be dispatched to a job where they could see the instructions or information about the product directly overlaid on it. There would be no fumbling for a laptop or tablet; the information they need would be accessible with a flick of their head. With such detailed information available, this could even mean that field service companies could dispatch less skilled technicians into the field, while the more experienced engineers could stay at the main headquarters supervising and troubleshooting more difficult issues.
In an interview first published in Field Service News, Professor Howard Lightfoot of Cranfield University School of Management outlined what he saw as the biggest benefits to augmented and virtual reality tools in field service:
Said Lightfoot, “It could de-skill field service activity. There are parts of the world where you can’t get the right people. With augmented reality you can link them to a skilled technician back at the base who can take them through the process. Not with a manual and not on the phone, but he can actually see what they are doing. He can overlay information for them and digitally point at things, like: That’s the nut, this is the one you turn. Don’t torque that one anymore than this. Torque that one to this level. Undo that cabinet first, and make sure you disconnect this before you do that.”
Moreover, that skilled technician could be “back at base” thousands of kilometers away, reducing the cost of flying specialists out to every complex job.
The other benefit of augmented or virtual reality is its potential as a highly detailed, highly visual training tool. Just as children’s educators get excited at the idea of breathing life into history or science lessons that put students right into the environment they are learning about, field service managers are seeing how AR or VR could be used to train technicians or engineers on complex tasks or fixes.
By giving engineers the tools to fix problems thoroughly and quickly, you can increase first-time fix rates and lower the average time it takes to fix a product.