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Review

IKEA lets you preview products in your home, no assembly required

Ever gone to the store and picked out a lovely couch, or a really striking coffee table, only to drag it home (or have it delivered) and discover that it doesn't match anything in the room -- or worse, doesn't fit in the room at all? IKEA wants to eliminate that most expensive and inconvenient buyer's remorse you can get with furniture by upgrading their catalog app with augmented reality (AR) technology, allowing you to see what their products look like in your actual home.

The app is available through both the App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android. There are actually multiple IKEA apps; the standard IKEA app is basically a standard catalog app that you can search or browse by category, with images of the products, prices, product availability, assembly instructions, and the ability to add items to a shopping list. It does a fine job as a shopping app, but it's not where the magic happens. If you want to see some bells and whistles with an "augmented" shopping experience, you need to download the specific "IKEA Catalog" app. You'll also need to have an actual physical paper IKEA 2014 catalog, which you can pick up at any IKEA store or request via the website (and once you're on their list, you'll receive a new copy every year in the mail).

Augmented-reality applications use the camera in your phone to view the real world, then they present their own information based on what they see, sometimes even overlaying their own graphics over the image the camera is capturing. In the case of IKEA Catalog, you point your phone at pages that have an orange circle with a white plus symbol, found in the lower corner of the page. Once you center the page in your phone's camera, a blue icon will appear in the middle of the page. The symbol varies based on the content it represents. There are a lot of options. Some simply give you a list of items listed on that page and let you browse them as you would any other catalog. Some play video showcasing the products. There's a neat option that places you inside the room portrayed on the page, and you move the phone in the direction you want to turn to look at. And of course, as we mentioned, some pages allow you to place a 3D model of certain products inside your own home. This would be the most impressive feature, when we could get it to work properly.


Why yes, we do want a half-blue, half-plaid couch.

So far, the 3D option is only available for 90 products in the catalog, out of the thousands available. And there's no way to tell which products have which AR features, so you don't know until you try. However, the pages where products are broken up into individual images are a safer bet, with a lot of the 3D functionality being used for standing shelves, chairs, and tables. We tried a few coffee tables and some chairs and got it to work...sort of.


To use the 3D function, you place your IKEA catalog on the floor in the place where you would like the furniture to appear. The app warns you to avoid excessive shadows or glare. But even with good lighting, it's still a little finicky and takes a few tries to get the sample furniture outline to appear (a ghostly rolling desk chair). Once you're happy with the angle, tap the screen and the furniture you actually want to see will appear. From there you can back up and move in, and use the touchscreen to rotate the furniture image until you're happy with how it looks. Of course, it only works as long as the camera can see the catalog on the floor; lose sight of it and you're back to the start. It also seems to be meant for tablet screens; our phone screen (despite being over 4") sometimes wasn't big enough to see an entire chair or table, and backing up too much often meant we lost sight of the catalog. This is an app best meant for your iPad or Android tablet.


If you get it to work, it's actually pretty neat. It does give you a better (though not fantastic) idea of how a particular piece of furniture might look and fit in your home, since according to IKEA, 14% of their customers "say they've bought the wrong-sized furniture for their rooms and over 70% say they don't really know how big their own homes are." And unlike a pair of pants that doesn't fit or a sweater that clashes with everything you own, you can't just throw it back in the bag and bring it back to the store on your way from from work. The new IKEA app saves you from the hassle of assembling a product and then disassembling it and reboxing it, and that's certainly worth fussing with a finicky camera for a few minutes.