The variety of cars available on the market can make purchasing one a draining and confusing experience. Will your choice be the right one for you; will your car meet your needs? The CATER ('Computerized automotive technology reconfiguration system for mass customization') project, supported under the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) with EUR 3.35 million in financing, is developing an improved way to efficiently present customisation options to shoppers: virtual reality and emotional design.
The CATER consortium, comprised of European and Asian researchers, believes the majority of consumers spend a lot of energy on determining not only what make to buy, but what features should be included. According to the project partners, functionality is not the sole determining factor.
Customisation options have been a thorn in car manufacturers' sides for quite some time. Not everyone wants a basic box with four tyres and a steering wheel to go around in. With this in mind, the CATER researchers say an immersive vehicle 'configurator' would give buyers the chance to visualise all the vehicle options and variations in high resolution 3D, either presented on a large wall display, television or virtual reality cave.
'By giving people the chance to immerse themselves in the car in 3D virtual reality, they can better understand what the options are, how they look and will feel more confident about making a purchase,' CATER coordinator Dr Manfred Dangelmaier from the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) in Germany told ICT Results.
Because car dealers were regularly worried that the high cost of traditional virtual reality systems would burn holes in their pockets, the systems were not readily used. The CATER researchers, however, have successfully devised a system that can be set up inexpensively.
'The hardware itself is relatively low cost at between EUR 10 000 and EUR 12 000 for an installation… and the software runs on a normal PC,' Dr Dangelmaier explained. 'In addition, it would save dealers from having to have such large showrooms as you would only need cars for test drives not to show off different finishes.'
Concerning emotional design, the CATER team said this concept will help potential buyers define what they want from a car. Called 'Citarasa Engineering Approach' (citarasa is Malaysian for desire, feeling and aspiration), the concept involves showing customers images of daily objects that reflect certain abstract emotions and tastes, and connecting them with the car's features.
'The system is very similar to the mood boards used by graphic designers that help define tastes and emotions through images,' the project leader was quoted as saying.
So who benefits from the CATER system? According to the partners, everyone will. Dealers will be able to communicate the buyers' choices to the car manufacturers, who will then be able to convey key messages to suppliers, thus effectively strengthening logistics and supply chain management, they said.
'Buyers obtain a better understanding and clearer impression of the vehicle they are purchasing, and the options on it, because they are given the chance to provide "soft information" about their tastes and feelings, as well as "hard information" about their wants and needs,' Dr Dangelmaier commented. 'Receiving feedback about customers' likes and dislikes is essential if extremely costly design mistakes are to be prevented when developing new models.'
A workshop in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur was held between 25-28 March to share with automotive professionals and researchers the results and innovations of the project including the prototypes of the Citarasa Engineering Approach and the Web-based 3D Do-it-Yourself-Design system.
CATER has also announced its plans for pilot testing. The researchers stress that end-users will contribute to the evaluation of the CATER system. The pilots will cover a variety of needs including different user groups and environments.