Technology

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Adding a level of reality to online shopping

Mike Festa used a 3-D device to move chess-like pieces that represent different furniture and place them where he wanted in a virtual space.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Mike Festa used a 3-D device to move chess-like pieces that represent different furniture and place them where he wanted in a virtual space.

In a rather bland office above the Copley Place mall, Shrenik Sadalgi is doing a little redecorating. He installs a $1,000 chandelier in the ceiling in a matter of seconds, without a drill or a shower of plaster dust. Then, without breaking a sweat, he places an upholstered armchair beneath it.

Sadalgi’s only tool is a small tablet computer outfitted with an “augmented reality” app that he and his team at Boston-based Wayfair are developing. Because the chandelier is merely a digital object overlaid atop the real environment, with a click he can move it to another part of the ceiling, and with another click he can turn it on to see how it would illuminate the space.

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Augmented reality and its sibling, virtual reality, have been gaining momentum in the tech world over the past four years, ever since Google began experimenting with its Glass display (now being retooled) and a startup called Oculus launched an online funding campaign for a virtual reality headset called the Rift (Oculus is now owned by Facebook). And while many assume that the only people who will care are gamers and escapists who want to spend all day surfing the waves off a virtual Waikiki Beach, companies such as Wayfair and Lowe’s Home Improvement are betting that the technology will have a big effect on how we decorate our homes and shop.

First, two quick definitions. Augmented reality (sometimes also called “mixed reality”) lets you look at the screen of a tablet, or through a visor or pair of glasses, and see a blend of the real world and digital objects, like the chandelier on the ceiling. Virtual reality is the kind of immersive experience that involves shutting out the real world and entering a totally manufactured digital realm; as you turn your head or even walk around a space, you “see” different perspectives.

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This month, Best Buy will start showcasing the $600 Rift headset in several dozen of its stores, but a cheaper way to experience virtual reality is to buy a $15 Google Cardboard viewer, insert your smartphone, and install a free app like Cardboard or the New York Times VR viewer.

Wayfair, which sold $2.25 billion worth of home furnishings online last year, has assembled a team of about five employees, dubbed Wayfair Next, to build demos and explore the potential of virtual reality and augmented reality.

The first step is creating a three-dimensional digital model of the furniture the site sells. That involves putting an item onto a turntable that rotates it as four high-resolution digital cameras mounted onto a vertical pole snap about 3 gigabytes’ worth of still photos. Then, software trims out the background and assembles the still images into a digital object that can be viewed from any angle.

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Each item will require about five to 10 minutes in front of the cameras, software engineer Rebecca Perry explains, and an hour or two of processing afterward. So far, the company has created 3-D models of about 3,000 of the more than 7 million items it sells.

Each item will require about five to 10 minutes in front of the cameras, software engineer Rebecca Perry says, before it is turned into a 3-D model.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Each item will require about five to 10 minutes in front of the cameras, software engineer Rebecca Perry says, before it is turned into a 3-D model.

One of Wayfair’s demos involves sitting down at a table. In front of you are an array of dollhouse-sized pieces of patio furniture. When you don an Oculus Rift headset, you can see those same chairs and tables on a digital terrace. If you pick up the barbecue grill piece from the table, you can move it in your digital world to see how it looks on the left side of the terrace, with a seating area on the right.

The demo Sadalgi showed me uses a not-yet-released $500 tablet from Google, called Project Tango, to pick out a piece of furniture and overlay it onto the room you’re standing in. Point the tablet’s camera at a shelf, pick out a lamp from Wayfair’s online catalog, and suddenly you see exactly what the lamp will look like sitting on that shelf. Sadalgi explains that the Wayfair Next team is working to make the images on the tablet screen as realistic as possible; if the lamp has a mirrored base, for instance, you’d see reflections of real objects in the room on the base.

Wayfair cofounder Steve Conine talks about using this technology to “close the gap,” so that shopping for furniture on the Internet appeals to people who haven’t done it before, and makes Wayfair more competitive with brick-and-mortar retailers where you can sit on a sofa before you buy it. Conine and the Wayfair Next team talk about inexpensive ways to create digital models of your home, perhaps by having you submit photographs from various perspectives, and then letting you work with an interior designer anywhere in the world — with you wearing a virtual reality headset — to see how different furnishings would look.

The company might also allow others, like a video game creator, to use its digital furniture items in their products. Like the credenza in that house you just looted in a game? Just click here to buy it on Wayfair.com.

Shrenik Sadalgi demonstrated how to use the app that superimposes furniture from Wayfair's collection in his phone's camera.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Shrenik Sadalgi demonstrated how to use the app that superimposes furniture from Wayfair's collection in his phone's camera.

Lowe’s, the North Carolina-based home improvement retailer, has already deployed a virtual reality system called the Holoroom to 19 stores around the country, including stores in Woburn and Framingham. It allows customers to design a new bathroom, for example, using an iPad and then to visualize the end result using an Oculus headset. And last month, retailer IKEA unveiled software for the HTC Vive headset that allows users to see various kitchen layouts and change the colors of cabinets.

At Wayfair, Conine acknowledges that “history is littered with companies that have invested in new technology too early,” but he says that virtual reality and augmented reality are “maturing quickly” in a way that reminds him of the Web in the mid-1990s. “We want to be one of the companies driving it to must-have, rather than playing catchup later,” he says.

Analyst J.P. Gownder, a vice president at Forrester Research in Cambridge, says despite the dazzling demos, widespread use of virtual reality and augmented reality are “still a long way off.” While sales of virtual reality headsets will start to pick up in 2016, Gownder says, “the market remains in its infancy.”

If that’s the case, then Scott Evernden, a software developer and entrepreneur in Holliston, was present when the parents went on their first date. A decade ago, he was part of a small startup called Kinset that began to build three-dimensional digital stores that shoppers could walk through. New Hampshire retailer Brookstone briefly experimented with selling merchandise in Kinset stores, but not enough customers were willing to download the special software they needed, and by 2008 Kinset was out of business.

With virtual reality headsets hitting the market, Evernden is taking another pass, working on a project called Infinite Stores that will let anyone easily set up and stock a virtual shop. While retailers such as Amazon and Wayfair have made it easy to sift through millions of items online by entering a search phrase, Evernden believes that for items like jewelry or art or apparel, browsing will always be important. “It’s for shoppers who enjoy shopping as entertainment,” he says. “It’s like being in a flea market or a bazaar.”

With the Kinset experience in mind, Evernden knows that the future of retail, just like the past, will all be about attracting traffic. But instead of trying to get shoppers through the threshold of a store, in this era it is all about getting virtual visitors to enter a place made only of pixels.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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