Tuesday's technical documentation DocMuc conference in Munich featured many interesting topics – digitalization, connectivity, and creative writing – but two technologies really took center stage: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Professional tech writers as well as techcomm students debated how these new tools will change technical documentation, and whether it will replace written docs or just enhance them. But while uncertain of exactly how, everyone agreed that VR and AR would certainly change the way technical communication is sourced, produced, and delivered.
Here are some insights we gathered from all the presentations we attended:
Will VR, e-learning and videos replace traditional written documentation?
The general consensus here is no. These technologies will however enhance the current techcomm tool set and change the way tech docs are created and viewed.
During this panel discussion, multiple tech writers pointed out that, due to current legal requirements, the traditional text-based way of creating docs will be around for quite a while. Nevertheless, 800-page PDF user manuals are a thing of the past. As user behavior and expectations evolve, information needs to be delivered in various forms, from educational VR trainings to introductory videos, depending on the user's need and situation.
The panel also came to the conclusion that augmented reality or virtual reality won't completely replace written documentation in the near future because of the problem of integration. How will people be able to access a VR demo or an AR scenario? At the moment the technology is still too expensive. But as soon as it becomes cheaper the technical documentation tool set will surely grow.
Virtual reality as an ideal training tool
Virtual reality is a way to not only deliver information in an interactive manner but also to create context.
Unlike AG, VR can turn documentation meant for training purposes into an immersive experience which actually creates context. For example: if you are training a mechanic on how to disassemble an engine, you would have to have an actual engine there with AR. VR on the other hand creates the environment (workshop) and all elements (engine, tools, screws, etc.) needed for training the mechanic.
Of course virtual reality training can't transfer any tactile information, so it doesn't replace practising on the real thing. It can however teach processes very well and it allows you to simulate rare or unexpected scenarios which you can't recreate in real life. VR training is much more effective in this way because it's immersive and emotionally engaging. Therefore, virtual reality has the potential to replace training that used to be conveyed through written documentation.
Mobile documentation for B2C users
Documentation geared toward end users (e.g. user manuals, instructions, etc.) is becoming more interactive, and more mobile focused.
BMW presented their recent activities to improve their user manual experience, the Driver's Guide app and SmartScan. BMW's Driver's Guide is a vehicle-specific app which customers can use to quickly find information about their car. By adding the SmartScan functionality, users can even use the app to scan a symbol and the appropriate documentation is automatically displayed on their phones. It's clear customers are indeed taking advantage of this mobile documentation as BMW reports to have over 6000 daily app users.
Writing and designing documentation for mobile will likely become the norm as people are more and more accustomed to being able to access all kinds of information with their smartphones.
Video-based techcomm tips
Not only are videos exceedingly popular in general but they are also a great way to communicate with users who have less and less time to read technical documentation.
Videos provide tech writers with a relatively compact way of introducing users to a product, its look and feel, functionalities, and use cases. To communicate this information in writing would require paragraph upon paragraph of text, costing a lot of time to create and read.
Here are a few tips if you want to enhance your docs with video:
Just get started! You don't need professional equipment. Most smartphones can record HD video.
Don't recreate your user manuals. Produce video content that considers the user's situation and viewing context instead.
Don't forget: videos don't normally count towards fulfilling legal requirements for documentation.
Try to keep individual videos under three minutes in total length.