How Augmented Reality Will Change How You Buy Furniture

Thanks to a new Google 3D technology named Tango, mobile devices will be able to insert virtual images into a real place

Wayfair's app lets you see how their products will look in your house. (Wayfair)
smithsonian.com

If visualizing how a new couch will look in your living room is a skill you’ve never mastered, take heart. In the future, your smart phone will be able to do it for you.  

This fall, Lenovo, the Chinese tech company, will unveil the Phab 2 Pro, a smartphone with an oversized screen—more than six inches wide—and a unique ability: It will be able to see. Not quite the way we humans do, but pretty close. 

The Phab 2 will be the first phone to use a “vision” technology called “Tango” that Google has been working on for several years. Through the use of motion-tracking cameras, sensors and sophisticated software, Tango makes it possible for a mobile device to not only create 3D maps of indoor spaces, but also to reorient the map based on where the phone is in those spaces. For instance, Phab 2 phones will have depth perception, thanks to a sensor that uses infrared light to gauge depth by how light is shaped by objects in a room. 

A phone today can’t really “see” anything beyond what appears on its screen. With Tango, though, it will be able to stay aware of where windows, doors and objects are, even as the device is moved to different locations in that room. In that sense, it would perceive space much as we do. Like us, it wouldn’t need to be facing a door to know where it is.   

This is a big leap in phone functionality. It also provides a glimpse of the potential of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in our daily lives, beyond the world of gaming. AR adds a layer of digital data or images to the real world, while VR replaces or replicates an environment with an entirely digital version.

Interior motives

Which brings us back to the new couch dilemma. Once a Phab 2 phone creates a map of a room and stores it, you’d be able to select a digitized image of a piece of furniture, insert it on to the 3D map, and then move it around so you could see how it looks in different places and from different angles. 

Not surprisingly, one of the first companies to embrace the technology is Lowe’s, the home improvement chain. It will have its own Tango app, called Lowe’s Vision, available this fall. Shoppers will  able to point their Phab 2 smart phone at a space in their kitchen and see how different models of refrigerators, for example, would look there. Lowe’s will also take the unusual step of selling this particular Lenovo model phone in its stores. The retail price will be $499.

Another early adopter of Tango is Wayfair, the Boston-based online furniture store. It’s coming out with its own app, called  WayfairView, which is similar to what Lowe’s has developed. The app will let users select 3D images of the company’s furniture and use their phone’s touch screen to position objects on a virtual version of their homes’ floors, walls or ceilings—functionality that will take most of the guesswork out of shopping for furniture online, and mean fewer returns for Wayfair. The phone will also be able to take very precise measurements of indoor spaces.

Mapping the indoor world

These apps offer more of a real-world experience than how some retailers have started using virtual reality to engage customers. In April, IKEA unveiled a virtual reality app that allows shoppers to put on a headset and explore different styles of virtual kitchens. While in that digital world, they can design their own versions by changing colors and other features. But it’s meant to provide more of a fun, learning experience for customers than be an actual shopping tool. IKEA wants shoppers to give it feedback on the pilot program, running through the end of August, so it can refine how it uses VR in the future.

Lowe’s has been offering the same type of VR experience with its Holoroom kiosks in 19 of its stores since late last year. Shoppers can play out their design fantasies in virtual kitchens and bathrooms. Again, the point is to give people ideas rather than help them actually buy products.

So if, as it seems, AR has the edge over VR when it comes to online shopping, it has Google Tango to thank. But, that technology’s greatest potential may be as an indoor mapping tool. It could become the indoors version of Google Maps by allowing 3D maps to be created of big interior spaces, such as airports, arenas or malls. That way you could be guided through even the most confusing buildings.

According to a recent report in Bloomberg Technology, Google is working on a system that would allow Tango smartphones to share these maps with other devices. And that could enable it to eventually connect them all into a massive, detailed representation of a lot of the world’s buildings and what’s inside them.

Google never thinks small.

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