Where meatballs meet technology: IKEA in the VR world

With a business that attracts almost one billion visits to over 400 stores worldwide and generates over 38 billion euros in retail sales, IKEA says its vision is to “create a better everyday life for many people”. The latest manifestation of that vision is the IKEA VR experience, starting with a VR Kitchen Visualiser created by building an IKEA kitchen room set in the Unreal Engine games engine, which launched in summer 2016.

What’s the project?

“We are exploring virtual reality as one of several digital tools to engage with our customers better,” explains Martin Enthed, IKEA Digital Lab and Development & Operations IT Manager.

A pilot project tested the technology with a sample set of 1,000 IKEA co-workers, all of whom went through a 15-minute VR experience in a bespoke kitchen from the brand’s catalogue. Despite the fact that most who tested the experience were non-gamers (only two out of 1,000) and regardless of the fact that management had expected a 50/50 split between those who would like the experience and those who would be non-committal or dislike it, the project got a 99% thumbs up.

The experience was published on Steam, one of the largest digital distribution platforms for PC gaming, from April 2016. The IKEA team who created the experience hoped for a few hundred downloads. Instead it went viral and just three hours after its launch, users were starting to upload their own films, showing themselves in the VR kitchen, moving objects around and offering virtual companions virtual snacks.

How was the feedback?

“We watched social media quite closely for the next few days, listening to the audience’s feedback and comments,” says Martin. “We were expecting practical issues, such as people having trouble interacting with the environment or discussing colour palettes.”

Instead there was only one thing everybody wanted. And in reply, IKEA posted this addition.

Adding meatballs

Martin reveals that this was the only piece of communication they released on the project, they did not send out any press releases or make any industry statements. But their social media activity peaked, more user videos were uploaded and excited feedback flooded in – “This is the weirdest thing I’ve done in VR and I’m loving it”.

The video had over 400,000 downloads, which was more than the IKEA app had. After a month on Steam, it was ranked number 5 on the list of VR apps for Vive, after five months it was the number 1 branded app It also won a VR award for the Most Creative Use of Marketing in VR.

Ikea Steam store data

What technology did they use?

Seeing an early prototype of HTC Vive in Seattle in 2014 largely made this possible, explains Martin. “The 4th of December 2014 at 1.36pm in Seattle was a total turning point for me. I got to try out the pre-launch version of the HTC Vive and now for the first time I could spend two hours on the other side of the screen, without getting motion sickness. We were asked if IKEA would like to be one of the first companies to get a headset and try it out and of course we said yes. And once management were shown the potential, they immediately saw how big this was going to become.”

Approaching the build of the VR experience, the team had a number of questions – the most fundamental of which was, can it look real? With image quality key to what they wanted to achieve, they also looked at issues around the audience’s ability to move and interact in the space, as well as offering viewers different perspectives, including a child’s perspective as well as a cat’s. One of the funniest subsequent viewer videos showed a cat attempting to cook meatballs in the VR kitchen.

When it came to the image quality of the experience, IKEA had done the groundwork. The company started working with 3D images back in the early days of the new millennium to solve one of its key problems – the difficulty of showing the many combinations of images that go into making up IKEA products. Working with computer graphics, the team started to build a library of computer models and by 2009 had also created high resolution materials’ and textures’ image libraries. This allowed them to create 3D room-set models with an accuracy of 0.2mm.

Today this 3D model library is the base for all marketing experiences, it has 33,000 models, as well as libraries for textures, materials and props – the apples you see in the kitchen for example. The library’s uses continue to grow as the wider technology develops, from initial room and product rendering to the AR catalogue and VR apps of today. Now, about 25% of all room renderings are made in 3D, half of all photos created are 3D graphics and 95% of combinational images – the reason the project was launched in the first place – are made as computer graphics. And this is not just for online use; 95% of images in some brochures are also CG, yes – even the cat curled up on the kitchen floor.

What was the timescale?

While the initial imaging project launched in 2005, things really started to take off from 2012. But back then, the technology was not advanced enough to build the type of high end experiences IKEA wanted. Though they did successfully launch their first augmented reality project, an app that generated a 3D image on top of flat product images catalogues.

2014 was a key year as Martin has confirmed. As well as the HTC Vive that fuelled his passion, Unreal Engine 4 launched, there was news of Occulus and Google was talking about its Tango capture device. Assessing that real-time would be very important for IKEA by 2020, internally it launched project Real-time 3D and the brand’s first VR experience was born.

“When we first dropped the kitchen room set into the engine, we could only get it to render at 10 mins per image in normal flow and we needed it to work at 11 milliseconds, running 90 frames per second – basically 60,000 times faster”, Martin explains. This was achieved by summer of that year, prior to launch on Steam – using, he confirms, every trick in the book.

What’s next for the brand in the immersive technologies space?

IKEA’s VR pancake kitchen is part of an in-store pilot project that attempts to transfer knowledge to customers, aiming to teach them about useful issues such as the best-practice work triangle, waste sorting and corner storage. It also lets them make batter and fry pancakes in this virtual kitchen, with the option of multi-tasking by frying pancakes in four separate pans simultaneously.

The experience is available in selected IKEA stores in Sweden and Canada, has been published on Steam and is compatible with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets.

“We’re using the VR visualiser to give our customers a better understanding of what to think about when planning and designing their kitchens and reassure them in their decisions by allowing them to walk around in a virtual version of their planned kitchen,” explains Martin.

IKEA Australia has created VR store tours so that audiences can walk around the shops in virtual reality. And just last year the brand released IKEA Place with Apple, an ARKit that can track and set products in space, with an extremely good size accuracy.

IKEA is also exploring virtual prototyping – developing and prototyping products in a digital 3D environment, enabling co-workers to test a number of versions of the same product early in the development without having to build a physical prototype. The team is also working on virtual creations of 3D room sets, integrating VR as a useful tool for interior designers

Ikea VR project

What are the challenges in this space?

“Our biggest problem is that we can transfer 3D models over to almost any application but we can’t move the materials with the high fidelity we would like to,” explains Martin. “We would love to have the generic material description created once and then translated into VR engines, whether that be Unity, Unreal or whatever. But we haven’t seen anybody in the industry trying to do this. We really need it and all companies like us need it.”

Rendering what he describes as “soft stuff” – cuddly toys, curtains, fabrics – in real-time is also very difficult and with a large proportion of IKEA products made from this “soft stuff”, it’s another problem they need to find a solution for. How do you plump a cushion on a sofa for example?

And, when it comes to real-time assets, they need a file format that can be handled by many systems but currently there isn’t one that can do this so an auto-conversion to real-time assets is also high on their wish list.

“Fundamentally we don’t fit in to other companies’ verticals,” says Martin. In the sectors where VR is most prevalent – film, gaming, CAD and architecture – IKEA does not feature, while having many of the same requirements as all of them. “We need the same quality as film companies, we use game engines, we work with CAD data all the time – at least half of our products come from CAD – and finally, everything that we do is in an architectural space.”

To address the challenges, they have launched the IKEA Digital Lab, working across nine areas, including VR and MR rooms and products, product simulation, Artificial Intelligence, sound simulation, social VR and touch/smell/taste. Working with other brands, with start-ups and with universities – basically, as Martin says, “anybody who wants to work with us” – the plan to is keep track of the fast-moving developments within the immersive technology space.

Where could this go in the future?

“VR and MR are developing very fast and will impact on how people live in their homes and how they shop for home furnishings,” says Martin. “We’re working to be at the forefront of that development but the challenge with VR/MR is that it is still at an early stage and to fulfil its potential, its applications and devices will have to become faster, cheaper and lighter.”

“We believe in virtual and mixed reality as technologies that will create great experiences for our customers and will support them in realising their home furnishing dreams. For our purposes, we see VR as a technology that can help people visualise their home furnishing solutions before buying, which will be a great tool, eliminating buying mistakes and ensure that they get the solution that is best suited for their individual needs.”
— Martin Enthed, IKEA

Martin believes that VR, AR and MR will become an integrated part of people’s lives in the future and will change how people live – “that’s why we want to be there”. He also thinks that this development will be a total game changer for retail, but many things still need to be done for this to happen.

But as they say in IKEA “Most things still remain to be done – and it’s a glorious future”

Words by Bernadette Fallon

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