Maria Fitzpatrick gets an exclusive first try of an augmented reality app that’s set to revolutionise the way we shop for furniture.
There is a bright green chair in my living room. I didn’t buy it, nor did my husband – and no one else has a key to our house. It just appeared. This morning there was a new chest of drawers upstairs, and an industrial-style, folding chair in the kitchen. Now they’ve disappeared. I haven’t taken leave of my senses, but I am seeing things. The ‘chair’ isn’t real; it has been projected into the room using exciting digital technology, called ‘augmented reality’, which allows you to look at things that aren’t there. This is interiors shopping for the smartphone generation, and I’m simply trying before I buy. I’m using a new, free app, developed by Ikea (available from from the Apple Appstore/Google Play from Monday), on my phone, to virtually ‘place’ items from its catalogue around the room, and to figure out if they’re the right size, fit, colour and style, before committing to purchase
So what jiggery-pokery are we dealing with here? The term augmented reality (AR) essentially means combining the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. It can superimpose computer-generated 3D images on top of a real image (the room in your house), using the camera on your mobile phone or tablet – meaning that the real and the digital objects ‘interact’ on the screen.
“The technology has been around for a long time, but it has lacked a commercial direction,” explains James Dearsley, an independent AR consultant. It’s now breaking through to the real world, with “all sorts of practical functions”, from virtual fitting rooms on clothing websites to interactive travel maps. Estate agents, including Hamptons International and Fine & Country, and luxury developers such as St James, use it for interactive brochures that allow potential buyers to explore virtual properties. “It’s not just technology for technology’s sake, ” Dearsley says.
Ikea started using AR last year, allowing customers to ‘scan’ items in the catalogue with their phone, to bring up more information (other colours available, matching items) or features that enhance the experience. You like this bench? Here’s an arty video of its designer buying coffee in a Stockholm café, and talking about what inspired it. But they’ve taken it to a new level this year, to address a common problem. Research has shown that many of us choose furniture in a hasty fashion, and it costs us dear when we buy the wrong-sized items for our rooms. Over 70 per cent don’t really know how big their homes are. “Not only are we in the dark about the size of our properties, we get in a muddle about measuring up,” says Howard Carter at Ikea, who commissioned the study.
It’s a frustration I know well, having moved house this spring and gone through the palaver of returning things that weren’t right – the “we need something to put clothes in urgently, the car park is closing, it’ll be fine”, approach. Storage ‘solutions’ become ongoing nuisances: a bedroom door that won’t close, a chest of drawers that goes into an alcove only with a level of persuasion that scrapes paint off the skirting board. Then there are those pieces that looked great in the shop, or in the heavily styled online picture, but just don’t work with the décor in your own room. It’s all time and money.
This new app allows you to see the items in your own space, in 3D, at their true scale, with no measuring tape. It is by no means the first of its kind: other high-end AR shopping apps include Decolabs (decolabs.com), which allows you to design and walk around your ‘new room’, and Sayduck (sayduck.com), with which you can place furniture from a range of brands in your space and share the images on social networks. But, according to James Dearsley, the fact that it’s now coming from a household name like Ikea means the technology is going mainstream, and everyone’s going to be using it. It takes patience to get going, but then, if you’re prepared to do the whole alan key thing – and have the dexterity – chances are you’ll stick at it, and find it an interesting tool.
So, how does it work? You flip through the printed catalogue to find a room set that you like which has a little plus symbol on the page; you hold your phone or tablet over that page, then tap the screen, allowing your camera to scan it. This wasn’t working for me at first: you have to hold your mobile device incredibly steady for it to recognise the page, so until I got used to it, I found it easier to use my mobile than my iPad. An icon pops up that tells you whether the digital “extras” include 3D furniture (other features might be videos, alternative views of the room, the option to mix and match table legs and tops). Then, place your closed catalogue on the spot where you’d like the item to ‘appear’ in the camera view of your room, and select the piece you like (say, a green chair) from a menu of items that were on the page. The chair springs up, as if in mid-air (it uses the catalogue as a scale indicator) and you lower it, scrolling with two fingers, into place, move it around, or turn it to face a different direction using your thumb and forefingers. (The scale function is compatible with dual-core devices like iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, Samsung S3 and HTC One.)
It’s surreal, good fun, and completely hypnotic. I, with my bad back, was carrying wardrobes with one hand. I whisked an armchair around, floating it through the air, like something from Harry Potter, and putting it down wherever I fancied. The colour works in the dining room, check; you could put it in the kitchen if you had a friend chatting to you while you cook, without obstructing the doorway, check. I saved the images on my phone, emailed them to my husband to see what he thought, and casually mentioned that we can fit a daybed in our conservatory. As for the coffee table, the proportions were right, but it was too shiny; I sent it back, without a receipt (click).
But is it an exact science? For instance, how ‘true’ are the colours of the 3D furniture? I asked Ikea’s augmented reality specialists in Sweden. At the moment, it’s “as accurate as possible using the technology”, but they admit there will be slight variation between the colour of the ‘generated’ 3D sofa and how the real piece would look with your home lighting. The technology is advancing so fast, though, that limits will fall away in time. Currently, 90 products can be seen in 3D, but this could expand to whole roomsets. And inevitably, other brands will follow. “Augmented reality addresses the ‘unknown’ between seeing furniture you like and paying for it,” says Mattias Jöngard at Ikea. “It gives you a sense of whether that bed will actually look good next to your grandmother’s old chest of drawers, and so it helps you make better decisions.”
It certainly gives you more information, narrowing the leap of imagination – and without having to go near the M25. Now, if they can just find a way to sit George Clooney on that green chair in my front room (preferably reading aloud the assembly instructions) I’ll be really impressed. The app is available for iOS and Android.