Augmented reality apps and the use of virtual reality has the potential to redefine the interior design industry

If designers can create spaces in virtual reality, visualizing complex spaces and taking both functional and aesthetic decisions becomes a lot easier.

In a metro city, the average family spends ten percent of their home’s value on interiors. For most, it translates to anywhere between ten to twelve lakh rupees. If you were to spend that kind of money without seeing the final product, how comfortable will you feel? When you don’t even buy a t-shirt without trying, the thought itself makes you uncomfortable, right? But that’s exactly how interiors were sold in the past. When, not very long ago, 3D renders became more accessible, the experience improved. Now, with augmented reality making inroads, the buying experience is bound get even better. But the experience of virtual reality is in a different league altogether. It is the next big thing. But how soon can you expect to see your interiors in virtual reality? Perhaps, very soon.

IKEA Place is an AR app which lets you place furniture in the desired place. Image: IKEA

IKEA Place is an AR app which lets you place furniture in the desired place. Image: IKEA

Virtual reality (VR), put in simple terms, is a digitally created, simulated environment that feels real. To experience virtual reality, you need to strap on a VR-supporting headset, such as HTC Vive, and that will transport you to a new, virtual world. Originally the prerogative of the gaming industry, virtual reality has now found its application in a wider ecosystem. In many countries, people are now being taught high-risk skills in a virtual setup — a good example is the training for operating heavy machinery. Construction is another industry where virtual reality is making its mark as the new-age visualization tool, saving architects and builders a lot of money and time. Several companies are even developing VR capabilities to train surgeons! All this comes as no surprise because wherever the cost of making a mistake is high, having an-almost-real thing before the real thing can do wonders.

The same holds true for interiors. The term dream home, while clichéd, could not be closer to reality. Homes, and by extension interiors, are not just a monetary but an emotional investment. We would settle for nothing but perfection and hence, in a perfect world, going wrong is not an option for interior designers. This makes a case for VR as a tool to communicate design. Without any technical know-how, a customer can understand the proposed design for their home by walking into each room virtually. If you don’t like something, you can ask your designer to change things now—before they become real and cost time and money. For interiors, I see VR as no-strings-attached reality. Commit to it and sign the dotted line only once you’re sure. Sweet deal, isn’t it? Then why hasn’t it happened already? The answer lies in how VR content is created and the ecosystem as a whole. But before we even get there, let’s address the elephant in the room.

But first, Augmented Reality

Augmented reality or AR is sometimes confused with virtual reality, even though technically they’re different. And so are their virtues and limitations. With AR, a 3D object is digitally placed on top of our real world. Remember the wildly popular mobile game Pokémon Go? On your phone screen, with your phone camera active, you could see a digital pokemon in your real environment. Earlier, in 2014, IKEA launched an AR app far ahead of its time. It allowed consumers to digitally place products from the IKEA catalog in their home, simply by snapping a picture. All this when Apple and Google had not launched their ARkit and ARCore. Now, it’s comparatively easier for brands to develop mobile apps that support AR. This is the perfect example of how developing an ecosystem leads to a technology being furthered and an increase in its acceptance. With VR, the ecosystem itself is comparatively nascent.

Moreover, since AR works on mobile and, in contrast, VR requires a special device, the former’s accessibility is far greater.

How virtual reality works?

Virtual reality today can be experienced in two formats. The first one is a 360 image and it is supported on devices that work in conjunction with your phone, think Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, and the like. Open a pre-rendered 360 image on your phone, place your phone in the headset before wearing it and then you can turn your head around to experience a room/scene. The vantage point is pre-configured, but you would be able to experience the full 360 view.

In contrast, with devices that work in conjunction with computers, such as HTC Vive, the VR experience is far more immersive. For this VR demo, you first require some empty space. Motion sensors are then placed at the edge of this space. The headset is connected to a powerful computer capable of rendering your virtual environment in real-time: read no pre-rendered images. When you strap the headset on, you can walk through the room or teleport yourself to different places in the demo using a controller in your hand.

While content for the former can be created using 3ds Max (a popular 3D rendering software that has been around for a while), the latter requires specialized software such as Unreal engine.

Problems with virtual reality today

VR industry, due to its nascency, is in a state of flux. The whole ecosystem that supports VR—from software where the content is created to devices where the content is consumed, is growing and improving and is not nearly perfect. As a direct result, the cost of creating VR demos—especially the second format, and the time taken to do the same can be prohibitive for many. One can either hire a VR studio—which is equipped with trained VR artists, software, machinery, etc.—to produce content or develop those capabilities in-house. The latter, obviously, is a costly and time-consuming affair. For exactly this reason, VR demos are still more common in commercial projects where the ticket size is far greater than a residential project. If VR is to go mainstream, it has to evolve to become more accessible.

Next, there is a considerable difference in the quality of visuals between the two VR formats described above. Real-time rendering in very high quality is something that is yet to be fully cracked. And high quality, needless to say, is very important for interiors. In fact, if the quality is low, there are more chances that the user will experience VR sickness (it is similar to motion sickness, in terms of symptoms).

Thirdly, at least for now, you need a specialized workforce to create VR demos. Initiatives like Vive Studios (in association with Unreal) and even a few online decor companies in India, including us, are trying to simplify the creation of VR demos, so much so that the designers can do it themselves. Vive studios are enabling interior designers to design in a virtual environment using a controller to add products, apply textures, create and scale walls and other features. The lighting and rendering to make the quality “acceptable” for a consumer is done separately. Designers are also enabled to convert their 2D/3D designs into shareable VR demos at the click of a button. These initiatives are worth pursuing because only when creating VR demos will be as easy as creating AR content with a mobile app, will the popularity of VR soar.

Representative Image of an interior space.

Representative Image of an interior space.

What’s up for grabs for interior designers?

If interior designers can create spaces in virtual reality or quickly and economically convert their 2D/ 3D designs into VR format, visualizing complex spaces and taking both functional and aesthetic decisions becomes a lot easier. Spotting discrepancies early on saves rework. Next, communicating through VR ensures that both the designer and homeowner are on the same page, which improves customer satisfaction greatly. Moreover, it inspires a lot of trust and confidence in the mind of the homeowners. In fact, think about how showcasing your portfolio in VR will transform the experience for a potential client. Moreover, virtual reality makes a case for designing from anywhere—want a designer in New York to work on your apartment in Mumbai? It should now be possible to communicate without any misunderstandings! That’s good news for both designers and homeowners.

A virtual-first future

A couple of years ago, virtual reality content may have only stood a chance to cater to a select few. But today, the potential to go mainstream, especially in the field of interior design, is greater than ever. To understand the potential, you only need to notice something that we use everyday. Facebook 360 was launched in 2016, and they recorded a million people using the Gear VR in just a month. Today, for most brands, in all sectors, 360 photos is the most engaging form of content. The trend holds true even with the rising popularity of 4D and 6D cinema. The average person expects more—both in terms of quality of content and experience — in 2018 when compared to a few years ago. Immersive experiences are the norm and not the exception anymore. Flat pictures are passé. The pace at which the average user today is accepting new technology is commendable. This points to a future where virtual content and all other immersive experiences will be the only way to stay relevant and deliver the experience that your customers have come to expect.

The author is the co founder of Livspace, an online interior and renovation platform.

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