John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The furniture giant's 2014 catalog lets shoppers "place" virtual furniture around their homes. That idea was prophesied in 1999's Fight Club.
Want to know if that rug will tie your room together? IKEA can help with that: Its newest catalog, to be released later this month, lets shoppers use their smartphones or tablets to virtually "place" furnishings around their homes in search of the perfect spot.
This big idea from the world's biggest furniture retailer has garnered a lot of press. But augmented reality is an old concept – traceable in spirit to at least the 1980s experiments of Steve Mann, everybody's favorite cyborg. (Except McDonald's.) The technology has applications in a variety of fields, from architecture to navigation to danger-mapping on the battlefield. One of the first times that AR specifically helped in the selection of difficult-to-pronounce European furniture, albeit in a fictional setting, came with 1999's Fight Club. In one scene, Ed Norton expresses his desire for a room loaded with a J. Fruktbar coffee table, F. Hifla shelving unit, and a R. Skogvokter lamp – and ploop!, they magically appear:
(If anybody from IKEA is reading, note the director's restraint in not including any weird tickling or human-dogpiling scenes, something that can't be said for your own promo video.)
Several years ago, a group of students at the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a program almost identical to IKEA's, as pointed out by an astute Redditor. Phurnish was an app prototype designed for Android that bore the slogan, "Interior Designing Made Easy." Its creators wished to save people the physical effort of pushing furniture around to see what it would look like in different locations, and also to pull images of chairs, tables and home accessories from the catalogs of major retailers and juxtapose them onto their rooms. They even name-drop IKEA in this explanatory film:
Phurnish doesn't appear on Google Play today, but the beta app was well-received enough that it reportedly won second prize at Georgia Tech's Convergence Innovation Competition 2010.
Then there's Augment, an app that lets people visualize 3-D product models in the comfort of their home or office. It's more geared toward package design for the marketplace, though it certainly could be used to place non-existent furniture in a room (check out the Nescafé stand in the below video.) All this isn't to say that IKEA's new-wave catalog is not worthy of tech praise – from the preview material the company's released, it looks to take augmented-reality shopping to new heights of sleekness and operability. It's just to point out that the catalog's basic idea, kind of like a Stenstorp kitchen island, did not pop into existence fully assembled.