Constructing Reality: AR and the New Democracy of Home Design

New technologies are changing how we shop for home decor.

AR-designed living room with green paint and green velvet sofa

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We’ve officially reached peak interior design awesomeness: You can confidently buy a new sofa without ever leaving your current one. No, it’s not just that you can shop online, it's that you can solve all of the pain points that come with larger purchases right from where you sit. Typically, when spending bigger bucks for furniture, people worry about how it will look up close, if it will fit in their space, and how exactly it will jell with the rest of the items they want to buy. Fortunately, digital masterminds have been hard at work coming up with clever new tools to help us buy without remorse. These features do not replace interior designers—we need experts who have great taste, understand the flow of a space, and have connections with brands and contractors. These tools simply empower design novices and homebodies to make purchasing and design decisions on their own. And better buys mean less returns, less waste, and less hassle. Everybody wins! Read on to learn more about how to virtually shop, stage, and design your dream space.

For many of us, Pinterest and imagination have gone a long way to helping us nail our vision and design for our homes, but augmented and virtual reality are changing the way we plan our spaces. Hilah Stahl and John Kenny launched Spoak, an interior design studio and design suite, back in 2020. The service was a quick hit with design lovers and aspiring designers because it’s easy (or easier than learning Photoshop) to create room renderings, mood boards, floor plans, and more. Users can enter measurements and stock their space with real items across a variety of brands. “Very rarely is someone buying an entirely West Elm living room,” Stahl says. “This offers you a chance to build a room without having to accommodate different brand catalogs.” Stahl just used the program to design her new home. “It felt comforting knowing these things would fit through the front door, and that the heights and colors matched,” she says. “That’s an invaluable level of confidence.” Beyond helping you feel good about real-life purchasing decisions, virtual design is also just fun, and many users on Spoak enjoy just playing around with products and ideas.

IKEA was an early adopter of augmented-reality room planning, which makes sense because they’re known for their creative full-room in-store displays. Checking out each “room” is one of the best parts of going to IKEA (along with the meatballs and tiny measuring tapes). IKEA saw the value of at-home design in June 2022 and launched IKEA Kreativ—a way for people to explore their thousands of products and create custom spaces. The newest version of the app lets customers design their own showrooms (that’s the dream, isn’t it?). “Today, we see customers are using IKEA Kreativ to design complete spaces,” says Amanda Effron, chief digital officer at IKEA U.S. “They’re also using it to make decisions around considered purchases; for example, that one big item to add to a space—be it a bed, sofa, or entertainment unit.”

Figuring out your design plan is incredibly helpful, but let’s not forget about the shopping part. Many of us will avoid going into an actual store at all costs. It’s just so much easier to click a few buttons while binge-watching a TV show than it is to get dressed, maybe wear real pants with buttons (oof) and hustle to a store. Sofas and other big purchases will typically prompt people to get up and go, but a few brands have taken away that need with their own virtual showrooms and augmented reality features. Furniture brand Rove Concepts opened the proverbial doors to their AR 3D planner in 2021, offering people who couldn’t get to a store (or didn’t want to, no judgment) the chance to really examine all of their items without physically being there. Users can see pieces in any colorway or upholstery, and check it out from every angle (360 degrees), then see how the item will look in their own homes thanks to augmented reality. 

The app’s next update will solve another pain point: in-store shopping not only provides us with a chance to check out items, but to also see how experts style the items. The next iteration of the Rove Concepts virtual showroom will allow users to explore a 10-GB studio (read: very realistic and kind of game-like) through their browsers, giving them the chance to “visit” an actual showroom and see full room scenes. “Virtual design is only scratching the surface on what is possible for the industry,” says Art Lee, founder and CEO of Rove Concepts. The company's goal is to provide customers with tools that provide a pro-level design process—without the design degree or AutoCAD software. “This will change your everyday person's access to design ideation for the home,” he says.  

While many companies, including Rove Concepts, are turning to apps and 3D features to help shoppers buy with confidence, Houzz is focusing on featuring products from across different industries and manufacturers. They launched their app back in 2010 and were one of the first in the game to lean on AR as part of their consumer strategy. “We wanted to give people a more effective way to shop online because it’s often hard to judge the size and scale of items,” says Liza Hausman, VP of industry marketing at Houzz. They have millions (literally, millions) of products that users can view in 3D in their own homes, and not just chairs or sofas but also bathroom hardware, lights, or even tiles. Yes, it can lay tiles for you virtually using AR. “It’s a win across the board,” Hausman says. “It’s good for us, certainly, because people are making more purchases, but they’re also less likely to return the items.” 

Houzz also has roots in AR tools meant specifically for design professionals, which are generally more complex and are made for presentations and layers of interactivity. Their program, Houzz Pro, features 3D floor plans as well as tools for professionals, such as invoicing and project management. Other apps, like Apple's ARki, are also focused on the pro set, offering real-time AR for architectural models so changes and tweaks can be made almost immediately. 

Stahl believes that in the next three to five years, almost every home company will have a 3D and augmented-reality platform—and if she’s right, everyone benefits (including the environment, thanks to less driving and fewer returns). Hopefully, someday, we’ll be able to click a button and have our desired furniture magically appear in our apartments (preferably already assembled), but until then, these services take a lot of the fear and guesswork out of home design.

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