The Swedish home goods giant IKEA has been a trailblazer when it comes to applying new technology to improve its products and overall retail experience. Today, it's taking the latest step into the future of shopping with the launch of IKEA Place, one of the first wave of augmented reality apps getting released today to work with Apple's new ARKit technology and iOS 11.
Just seven weeks in the making, yet kicking off with a catalog of 2,000 items -- all of IKEA's sofas, armchairs, footstools, coffee tables and many storage solutions -- IKEA Place presents a picture, literally and figuratively, of how mobile phones are changing the way we buy things. If you've ever found yourself buying IKEA furniture that you later realize has no place to be in your home, you may have just found a savior for your rooms, your back and your wallet.
Once you download the app, you use your device to snap a photo of the place where you would like to visualize an IKEA object. Then you browse the app for an item, select it to insert it into your photo and move it into a place that works for you. You can then share your pictures or save them, and use the app to price and reserve the items, and eventually buy them on a local site. (Subsequent versions of the app may let you buy them directly, from what I understand.)
Taking images and placing them on other images is not a revolutionary development: this has essentially been around since the earliest days of software packages like Adobe Photoshop. What is different here is how IKEA is using new tech to improve that experience for users.
IKEA has rendered the images as three-dimensional objects in the app, complete with shading that responds to light in the given location that you have snapped and the texture of materials on the products. Also, the latency that you sometimes encounter when you move objects around in an app has disappeared, even as it automatically scales the size of objects to fit into the space that you have snapped, which IKEA claims it is doing with 98 percent accuracy.
IKEA's work in 3D imaging goes back a long way, which is one reason the company was able to hit the ground running and build a functional, well-populated app in so little time.
Michael Valdsgaard, who heads up digital transformation at IKEA, says that IKEA has been photographing its inventory for catalogs for years already in 3ds Max (the Autodesk software formerly known as 3D Studio), and, in fact, it has been using photo-realistic renders of those products, rather than actual photos of them, for a while too.
"Most of the things you see in our catalog are not real," he said (which I'm pretty sure he meant literally, not as a postmodern comment on consumerism). "They are rendered and enhanced with light and shadows."
Another reason IKEA was an early partner of Apple's and had a head start in building this app has to do with IKEA's legacy as an early adopter. IKEA was one of the first big clients of Metaio, an augmented reality startup quietly acquired by Apple back in 2015. At the time that we broke the news of that acquisition, we noted that Metaio had around 1,000 customers. IKEA was one of them, and the launch of IKEA Place today is a sign of how it continued to work with that team as it became a part of Apple and helped build ARKit.
For those of you who follow the connected home or retail spaces, you might know this is not IKEA's first tech rodeo. The company has also been an early adopter of tech like VR, wireless charging, smart lighting and solar panels.
Given its track record, we took the opportunity to talk with Valdsgaard on the bigger picture with IKEA, both the challenges and opportunities ahead.
TC: What's the ethos for why you choose to develop certain tech products; is it about appealing to your specific demographic?
MV: We look at the world around us and ask, how is consumer behavior changing? Who comes to IKEA and why, and who doesn’t? We are trying to use tech to reach as many people as we can. So far we've done that with three main pillars: the store, the catalog and our website. Those have formed the core of how we reach the consumers, but obviously we need to start complementing those with something else.
TC: You've done things with virtual reality before. What compelled you to build this AR app?
MV: Apple approaching us is what did it. They came in and said, essentially, "We have mature software, we have a platform." They sent us the ARKit. That really started things. Plus they have hundreds of millions of devices, and you have the possibility of being in all those overnight. There is no need for special skills, no goggles, just take your iPad or iPhone and get going.
Most people underestimate the work involved in making things like IKEA Place. We've also had a lot of ups and downs, with things like 3D printing and IoT that don't work as you want them to. But AR is one of those moments where we have the tech maturing. We really think AR is going to change everything that we know today.
TC: What's your background to give you the mandate to build IKEA's tech?
MV: I'm actually a business guy that went deep into tech a few years ago because I have a good feel for these things. Our sincere hope is to improve lives by creating home furnishings and how to improve lives with that. We are sincere about that quest. But we also make a business out of it. We want to inspire people and then do business.
TC: How on board is management with your tech investments?
MV: Well, with AR we understand it is at a certain stage and will change how you buy furniture. IKEA has had a head start, so the feeling has been, let’s go for it. My conversations with my CEO are, it’s not a matter of "if" but "how fast." AR will change the furniture business for sure. The question is how fast do we want to move. We are all in on this.
TC: What other technology are you looking at?
MV: We are also playing with VR. The only problem is that people are not super comfortable with it. If you design a new kitchen and move around, it is a good use case, but AR is more approachable. But as soon as VR is mature we will have a presence in it, too. If you can project something and in the real world that is a super use case.
TC: Are you always looking to partner with third parties, like Apple/Metaio, or do you build things yourselves too?
MV: We have an innovation unit in Copenhagen called Space 10, an internal unit that reaches out to a network of other companies depending on what our needs are. We try to work through networks rather than acquiring skills and people. If we need something we get access to the right people. We also have a startup incubator that helps those working in the area of tech and how it applies to retail.
MV: Well, the question really is who solves what and when? Right now Apple has solved the AR question and is bringing it to mass market. As for other things, we have to see what is going to happen. We think AR really will explode, and once I can put lenses in my eyes and see products and be interactive with them in the real world, that will be big. Some companies already do things well, but when you have to buy special equipment -- it's not for us.