Augmented reality is shaping the future of customer information.
Since 2017, we have been focusing intensively on augmented reality (AR) and how we can harness this technology to better provide information to our customers. AR is the expansion of reality to include virtual elements. With “SBB AR”, we are shaping the future of customer information: relevant, up-to-date information right where customers need to see it. “SBB AR” has even been nominated for the “Top 10 Real Estate (public vote in German)”.
I asked the two project leads Mahalia Stephan and Aline Dietrich what exactly is behind “SBB AR”, what challenges and opportunities it poses and where the journey is taking them.
What is SBB’s basic need with regard to AR and why are we offering such a service?
Mahalia Stephan: We offer our customers in the station multiple ways of finding their way around. To find your way to regional services or to a new shop, for example, there are a great many signs as well as digital channels, such as the two apps “SBB Mobile” and “My station”. AR can provide support in this respect with the opportunity to show our customers the latest supplementary information exactly where they need it.
For the first time, the latest technology is making it possible to show our customers supplementary real-time information virtually in the room via their smartphone.
What are the challenges of offering something like this?
Mahalia Stephan: AR is still in its very early days as a piece of technology and it is currently not possible to reliably completely determine the user’s location. This means that virtual elements in the room may be displaced. However, machine learning has allowed to us to minimise abnormalities and to put the virtual elements in the right place already.
Another challenge is using AR applications on smartphones. To see the virtual elements in reality, the user often has to hold the smartphone at eye level, which is still an unusual way of holding it at the moment. Over the long term, we will see whether the smartphone is a workable medium or whether glasses or lenses are better suited to using applications.
What is SBB’s secret to success when it comes to AR?
Mahalia Stephan: As well as the new type of technological basis, the proximity to our customers in particular is what makes the development of SBB AR applications so unique. Our entire team of developers, from the user experience experts and designers through to project managers, work at Zurich main station. They are all out in the field time and time again, testing the latest program codes or trying out prototypes in their early stages together with customers. This direct customer contact allows every single member of the team to put customer needs at the heart of the entire development.
What is the next step or what are you working on next?
Aline Dietrich: We’re currently working flat out on the launch of a preview app for AR. This will include the first applications and should provide us with meaningful customer feedback and findings. We are excited to see the situations in the station and on journeys in which AR can offer customers real added value. The aim is to make AR applications available on existing platforms in the future, adding a high level of value. This is because the intention is for the information to be where the customer is or where they need it.
Will AR push through and become suitable for everyday use?
Aline Dietrich: I personally am convinced that AR will catch on for use in certain situations. AR offers the potential of breaking down obstacles that arise when obtaining information. Information can be brought into the user’s field of view in a personalised form. In this respect, I think in particular of breaking down language barriers through translations of signs in the station. As with other forms of communication, it is important with AR that we focus on which information is needed at what time, so that a benefit is achieved.
Developing the end devices will advance AR technology and the increasing number of AR applications on smartphones will boost user acceptance. And maybe AR glasses will also become suitable for everyday use at some point.
How do you envisage customer information in the future?
Mahalia Stephan: Customer information is increasingly ensured in a seamless and intuitive way across the entire travel chain. This means, on my journey, I can continuously obtain information from a single source without having to strenuously switch between different providers and formats.
Aline Dietrich: Customer information is becoming more personal and targeted. Information is to be coordinated with how I travel (e.g. in a wheelchair or with a stroller) and where I am at what time.
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