Augmented reality: the end of complex tool design problems?
In September 2017, shortly before starting my research thesis in virtual reality, I was invited by an aeronautical manufacturer to a hackathon to study ways to improve the user experience of passengers in their private aircraft range. My team and I won this hackathon with a genuine operational solution that provided concrete solutions to existing problems. The prototypes developed have thus enabled us to envision the reduction or even the end of certain complex tool design problems.
Private planes, individually designed
This manufacturer is one of the French and world leaders. In particular, it designs military aircraft, renowned for their quality and maneuverability. From this expertise, this manufacturer also produces a range of private aircraft, often recommended by pilots that get a decisive advice in the choice of an aircraft by the owner. The design is in the image of France: almost no imposing lines as we can find on the other side of the Atlantic, the design wants to be representative of a French elegance, simple. Unlike car manufacturers, private aircraft manufacturers cannot afford the mass production of many trim components. Some elements express the requirement of a learned craft, others seem more tinkered for the occasion. Because of the need to certify each piece of equipment delivered as standard with the aircraft (an extremely expensive process), the cabin equipment is first considered with the standard and the technical and technological constraints in mind, the user experience taking second place. In most cases, passengers are rarely confronted with the difficulties that may arise from these design issues and priorities. Indeed, the flight crew is there to fill any gaps.
Improving the user experience means improving the customer experience despite design difficulties
In fact, treating yourself with a 40 million euro private jet, and not being able to be offered a coffee because the flight crew did not find the tap water inlet can chill the user experience. Improving the customer experience means reducing or eliminating as many of these friction points as possible. While many customers are now turning to service solutions (for example, leasing rather than owning an aircraft), it has become necessary for a manufacturer to differentiate itself through a brand experience that is qualitatively distinctive, beyond simple ergonomic or functional considerations. This implies being able to provide the flight crew with the necessary expertise to use the equipment specific to the aircraft model. In an ideal world, flight personnel would be assigned to a single aircraft model, which they could know at their fingertips. In the real world, expertise is rare regarding the model in which these personnel may have to serve. Indeed, a commercial fleet requires the crew to intervene on different models, of different brands… Equipped differently. On devices sometimes created individually, it can be difficult to find your way! Therefore, how to better train these flying personnel to the specific problems of each aircraft - even though the equipment can sometimes suffer from design flaws - becomes a major strategic challenge.
There are no regulations requiring flight personnel to be qualified on the specific equipment of a private aircraft. Our manufacturer’s solution? A “Cabin Guide”, a user guide of nearly 200 pages intended to list all the needs of the crew in the entire cabin. It is easy to guess that such a document is not systematically read in depth by the team before the aircraft’s departure. To train intelligently, it is therefore necessary to offer a solution with satisfactory usability, i.e. a solution that is effective, efficient and satisfactory. Effective, the solution must be accessible without special knowledge. Efficient, it must be made accessible in an acceptable time. Finally, satisfactory, the staff must find the solution in a pleasant way. For this, augmented reality seemed perfectly adapted to us.
Augmented reality effectively answers staff questions
Virtual reality is still in an early stage, augmented reality even more. In addition to simulating a virtual environment in an immersive context, this universe must also be projected onto real objects. But certain technologies allow prototyping and apprehending these problems. One of the great advantages of augmented reality is to be able to project virtual elements into a real universe: instead of reading the position on a plan and locating an element (such as a fire extinguisher, a coffee machine… or bottles of champagne!), augmented reality makes it possible to indicate the location of an object in three dimensions in a terribly effective way. Similarly, augmented reality is extensively used in the industry to facilitate complex business actions, requiring the application of particular procedures, on specific elements. One can quote, for example, the dismantling of a part in an engine, an operation which requires disconnecting certain cables, unscrewing certain parts… And to leave other elements in place. All this is difficult to record in a manual. Highlighting the right elements (using augmented reality) makes it easy to perform these tasks with very little business knowledge. This contextual approach thus makes it possible to propose an effective, efficient and satisfactory solution.
Two prototypes for specific use cases
To help locate items in space, my team and I made a prototype location aid application (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMa3mAM6iMk), using ARCore on an Android phone. Open the application, ask where the extinguisher is, and a red arrow appears: the equipment is behind the hatch. One can quite imagine that the hostess must follow a safety route before the aircraft starts, with either red arrows or ground paths that would allow her to fix the safety elements directly in space using her visual memory. The team would then be even more operational in the event of an accident. Similarly, we have assembled a prototype of a procedural approach by describing the process of a coffee machine (https://youtu.be/FAlK-ah2xno), which makes it possible to imagine more complex machines, where it is enough to act on the right actuators, in a precise order. Two concrete examples which make it possible to imagine a quick solution to be implemented by answering the essential of the problems which can appear in cabin.
The end of user manuals… But also complex design work?
Aeronautical equipment manufacturer is an eminently complex job. Each element delivered in an aircraft must obey very strict certifications, and must withstand particular conditions which push to put back the user experience. My example of complementarity between complex tools to use because of their design difficulties and emerging solutions such as augmented reality guides could provide an answer to a recurring designer’s problem, a solution made simple to use, by an expertise acquired on the product through a flash training ! In today’s transition from very personnal vehicles to car fleets, available on demand, a serious design problem appears: how can a manufacturer develop innovative, but complex features in a car that a user will have to onboard in a few minutes? Well, augmented reality and similar scenarios might be the answer. It could also pave the way for more ambitious complex features… That would still be simple to handle in a matter of seconds.