Leveraging gaming technology for a new generation of learning

April 4, 2023
A growing shortage of technicians, along with advancing automotive technology, have significantly elevated the need for advanced, accessible and engaging training.

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Editor's note: This article has been edited from its original publication in I-CAR's Collision Reporter.

When it comes to advanced vehicle collision repair training, Mike Mertes is bringing his A-Game to the table. A tech guru and self-proclaimed gamer, Mertes is a lifelong learner, and his passion for upping I-CAR’s training game through heavy doses of technology and gaming culture learnings is clear to see – especially if you’re wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset.

“Our society is at a fascinating intersection of gaming culture, technology and education,” Mertes says. “Those who can leverage and align with this moment can recognize some real benefits related not just to training, but to talent attraction and retention.”

In his role as I-CAR learning innovation and technology manager, Mertes is responsible for the development of engaging learning experiences under the umbrella of extended reality (XR) – this includes augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), interactive video and 360-degree videos.

Advancing the game

The head-spinning tech advancements within the automotive industry, coupled with a growing shortage of technicians, have significantly elevated the need for advanced, accessible and engaging training.

Enter gaming technology. The proliferation of smart phones and tablets has made virtual and augmented reality much more commonplace, especially with video games and social media. In fact, many businesses and organizations are already leveraging these new training opportunities. Think surgical residents participating in an intricate heart procedure from behind the window or pilots-in-training navigating harrowing conditions. Mertes himself earned his forklift license working through the lens of a VR headset.

Leveling up

Drawing on his 20 years of experience in the IT and video game entertainment fields, Mertes has taken a close look at gaming culture’s impact on the future of tomorrow’s collision repair technicians to help inform and shape the delivery of I-CAR’s next-level training programs. He notes the positive impacts developed through gaming range from quick decision-making and measured risk-taking, to flexibility and stepping out of a comfort zone, and taking pride in “unlocking” levels of achievement.

Likewise, he examined how this impact translates to best practices for training approaches and future training and learning needs. Mertes asserts that training needs to be “tested, true and positive” and has identified these “new world” training considerations:

  • Must be relevant and involve decisions
  • Must be entertaining and engaging
  • Must be challenging but doable; failure empowers to try again, not quit
  • Allow for practicing new knowledge/skills and compare performance to others

Removing barriers

“I do, therefore I learn,” a saying Mertes is fond of sharing, underscores that hands-on experiences really help to cement learning by encouraging better information retention and overall understanding.

Need to learn how to safely conduct an EV repair without the threat of high voltage? Can’t physically make it to a training facility halfway across the county? Missing that particular tool in your tool kit? No problem. That’s where innovative tools like virtual and augmented reality come in, Mertes explained.

“These new tools help to eliminate barriers, providing hands-on and interactive experiences, regardless of previous knowledge, location, or availability of traditional tools and equipment,” Mertes says.

Participants can view a repair, even suggest what repair path to take; and whether successful or not, it provides a valuable lesson. Techs can select tools and walk through an actual repair themselves with an instructor “live” on their screen. Or how about pulling up a service procedure on a portion of the lens/screen for quick reference while completing a repair? And that’s just scratching the surface.

Old school is new school

Mertes’ office inside I-CAR’s Chicago Technical Center (CTC) is a colorful representation of his life’s work and interests, old and new. An original 1995 Nintendo Virtual Boy headset and mini–Donkey Kong games share space with an array of the latest AR/VR headsets. Also displayed are issues of Old School Gamer, the magazine for which he serves as associate editor in his spare time. And if you’re looking for proof that Mertes isn’t just a heavyweight on the technology and training front, you’ll see it here – a shiny gold championship belt from his days as a professional wrestler.

And right next door is his “real” office – the CTC’s Learning Innovation and Design Studio, or his “game room” for R&D, complete with a 10 ft. by 6 ft. interactive screen at the ready to explore the new frontiers of XR for the future of training.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox to inspire future generations of technicians to continue learning,” he says. “We have to speak their language, and the gaming culture provides a perfect backdrop. I couldn’t be more excited about where the future of training is headed, with I-CAR leading the way.”

“Mike’s unique expertise in both gaming and IT, coupled with his energy and creativity, help elevate our training solutions, providing fresh approaches to training engagement which ties to our vision, ‘That every person in the collision repair industry has the information, knowledge and skills required to perform complete, safe and quality repairs for the ultimate benefit of the consumer,’” says Bud Center, I-CAR director of technical products and curriculum. “He is relentless in his quest to unlock that next level of learning innovation.”

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