While there are many benefits to buying furniture online, people always seem to have the same issue:
“When you see something online, you don't know how it will turn up when it is in front of you for real. Unlike online shopping, when you shop at local stores, you get to touch the product, pull drawers, sit on the couch and buy only after you are sure of buying. A computer or phone screen doesn't let you do that and sometimes you need to replace your product purchased online.”
That is almost true. You cannot sit on an item, but we thought we could visualize them quite well. However, getting out the measuring tape and looking up the item specifications is just not something customers are willing to do – and you still cannot know if the item will look good. We were ready to solve that problem but we wanted to take it one step further. What about two items? What about three? What about a whole office? So our problem statement increased, not only did we want to visualize one item in a room, we wanted to design and visualize an entire office – or any living space for that matter.
Our general product development process at VisionX remains quite consistent for each project. Followed by the identification of a problem, we always begin with researching to understand the market. We then synthesize our results and carve out an action plan. Next, we prototype & design. There are times when everything seems to be clicking right away and we get to the final product quickly but many a time coming up with a solution takes several attempts as we never compromise on the quality and efficiency of our products. Lastly, we evaluate our prototypes with user tests.
We knew that this project had multiple components to tackle so we first broke it down into pieces:
- Create 3D models of furniture items
- Measure or draw an existing space to place items in it
- Make people into rock-star interior designers
- Package everything into one application
Being experts in AR/VR Technology, we had a good sense of the industry, but each new project gives us the opportunity to look at new technologies. We talked to several small business owners regarding their experience with designing their offices and leverage our relationship with WeWork to learn about best practices regarding office design. As always, we looked at what already existed in the market to learn what others did right and what needed improvement.
We established our MVP Product to be a smaller selection of products which led us to the Lewis Furniture (acquired by Staples). Additionally, Lewis had a very simple experience to allow for people to design a whole office with several questions about their design preferences.
Now we know that interior designers spend years mastering their craft, so we wanted to minimize the amount of options that people had to customize their space. Using some basic filters not only would we narrow down the look they wanted, but we could also bundle several items together into a “set.” Rather than placing a desk, storage unit, and a chair, this would be placed as a single unit. For the actual 3D models, Apple’s AR Kit was not sophisticated enough to create realistic looking models. The most difficult part of the realistic 3D model is the texture and shadows - otherwise the item looks out of place, similar to the uncanny valley effect in digitally rendered faces. This is because our brains know what something should look like and thus know when something looks wrong even when we cannot explain it. You’ll notice this in the image ‘Ikea Place app’ below.
This is what pushed us to use Unreal Engine for our application, as the technology was far superior. In after some user interviews, we determined that most people would be using this app onsite which meant that measuring in augmented reality would be the quickest, easiest, and most accurate way to do so. The reason it was important to measure the space rather than just placing items into it was to create a 2D and 3D blueprint of the designed space which could be subsequently shared with colleagues or a designer.
Prototype & Design
This is a project that had a lot of back and forth between the designers and developers. We had numerous whiteboarding sessions to determine the optimal flow and A/B tested numerous options both internally and externally. At VisionX, we normally prefer a lot of options on the table and at least partially design and then dial them back. Our products are typically cutting edge – AR, VR, AI, and ML rapidly expand their respective functionalities each year, so we know our products will ultimately expand their functionalities as well. Even when a feature may be technically not achievable at the time of design, we have a good sense of when it will be implementable. This prevents our designs from becoming unadaptable for future versions and consequently needing a redesign. You’ll notice that thinking into the future regarding features and design is a large theme for us at VisionX.
Once our vision was set and user flows tested and established, we began without designs for the product. With Lewis being purchased, we wanted to stay true to the Staples brand, but alteration to their design system needed to be made to cater to AR designs. After significant back and forth between their teams, outside testing, and our own designers, we came up with a basic interface that would be used by consumers for selecting a style, measuring an office, and then designing that office in 2D, 3D, and/or AR, with the ability to go back and forth between 2D/3D and AR. For the MVP version, we removed the ability to add structural elements to the measurement section suck as columns, windows, and outlets to simplify the initial experience.
Our team flew out multiple times to Staples and present the work to their executive team, including Alexander “Sandy” Douglas who loved the technology and was excited to implement this into their consumer applications and create more robust versions of the technology for their internal sales team.
This was a very interesting project for us and really pushed a lot of technologies forward – not just for VisionX but for the general AR industry. The initial application is now also forking several other asks from both Staples and other companies to allow for tools to measure rooms accurately and with meticulous detail and present items in AR. AR Commerce is simply the next chapter in the way consumers will shop online. We’ve also learned at how in-need 3D modeling really is and have increased our efforts to create an easy to use product for the creation of said models (coming to a blog post near you).