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Mobile AR App Design Review #3: Torch Puts Its House In Order

Torch Reviews Furniture Placement and Shopping Apps IKEA Place, Curate by Sotheby’s, and Houzz. Then We Prototype Our Own.

They never said winning was easy. ~ DJ Khaled

Since we started Torch, we’ve been on a tireless quest to find utilitarian mobile AR apps and share them with our readers. In previous reviews of simple line-drawing apps and apps that used mobile AR to perform simple utilitarian tasks, we paid attention to the finer points of design and on-boarding, in part because these sorts of apps have basic functionality. There really isn’t that much there to review.

Not so the furniture placement apps. In fact, starting with the IKEA Place app, we’ve seen several of these furniture e-commerce apps evolve quickly. They started as simple tools that let you visualize a single to-scale 3D model of furniture (or in Curate’s case, full room layouts) in your space. They have developed into apps that let you not just try multiple pieces and get you started with the buy portion of the customer lifecycle — a key step in the maturation of mobile AR apps.

We also plan to do something different with this review — after a look at the three apps, we will share a glimpse of features we’d like to see that we prototyped with our own app.

When you stop making excuses and you work hard and go hard you will be very successful. ~ DJ Khaled

Utility in mobile AR starts with being able to do something you couldn’t easily do without augmented reality. Obvious, right? Maybe not. Just go onto the App Store and randomly select ten mobile AR apps, try them out, and ask yourself: Did this need to be in AR? I bet for nine out of ten apps the answer will be “no.”

At best, these apps prove there are lots of things that are possible in AR. But does mobile AR add any value? Does the augmented reality component save you time or money? Does it create a deeper understanding, forge a deeper emotional bond? Does it let you, the app user, achieve some end you would otherwise be unable to?

Just for example, say you are in the market for some new gold lions to go beside your foyer throne. You’ve looked online at GoldLionWarehouse.com but you really want to get a sense of proportion, materials — this is an important purchase and a few 2"x2" jpegs aren’t going to tell you if a particular gold lion is the one for you.

So, would you rather go to a store and look at gold lions they have on offer and try to picture them in your house? Maybe there are several stores in town that have gold lions — a gold lion district, if you will — and you end up driving to all of them to make sure you see all the possibilities at scale and in different light. Or maybe you end up purchasing a bunch of different gold lions, haul them home, arrange them, and then return the ones that didn’t work? Neither is a good alternative.

But with mobile AR based furniture e-commerce apps, you can get decent (and sometimes really high quality) models of the gold lions you are interested in, try them out, and increasingly, complete the purchase all in a mobile AR app.

That’s genuine utility. That’s what mobile AR needs more of.

There will be roadblocks. But we will overcome them. ~ DJ Khaled

Curate, from Sotheby’s 🔑🔑

Of the three apps we reviewed, Curate is unique in a number of ways. First off, you do not place individual models, but rather pre-arranged sets — entire bedroom or living room sets. The configurations are static so you can’t try different arrangements to see what best suits your room. That sort of erases one of the main reasons you would use mobile AR but it isn’t a deal breaker. You open the app, choose a set, visualize, and then explore it using both physical inspection (walking around the virtual set) and by pointing a reticule at the center of the screen at an object and tapping a locked-to-glass UI element for more info. This gives you the price and the vendor who sells the item.

Another design choice that makes sense within the confines of the app but stands out: mandatory landscape mode. While this is nice for iPads, it is odd for phones nowadays and it calls attention to the eccentricities of the iPhone X.

What Curate lacks in flexibility it compensates for in terms of material quality. Everything about the models screams luxurious and high end. When you tap a room set object to drag it, the textures drop away and a nicely detailed wireframe is revealed, presumably to allow you to see the room more clearly. The textures, the wireframe, the models — everything is very on brand.

This is worth calling out — mobile AR apps, no matter how utilitarian, communicate design values. Designing with the brand in mind is just as necessary in mobile AR as in more mature mediums.

When it comes to completing the sale, Sotheby’s takes an interesting tack: it lets you select the object (by pointing the aforementioned reticule at it and clicking on the More Info element) and then presents you with a link to one of several vendors who sell the item. Sotheby’s itself doesn’t sell anything. When you click on the link, you leave AR altogether and your experience becomes a standard shopping experience.

Since not all furniture is sold by the same store, you might end up with two or more shopping carts after a session in the Curate app. That’s a bit of a bummer. A unified shopping cart would be nice. This leads me to believe that completing the sale is not really the goal of the Curate app. Whatever that goal is, this app at least keeps the brand in focus.

What we learned:

🔑 3D design communicates brand values in new ways — the use of textures, the wireframes, the arrangement of items for sale; everything about this app screams an almost snobbish inflexibility combined with excellent attention to detail. On brand!

What’s cool:

🔑 The Wireframes — the way this app reveals the wire frames is noteworthy and aesthetically pleasing. When you need to see where you are placing something in the real environment, the ability to trigger partial or complete transparency is really useful.

🔑 Object selection outlines — this is how Torch chose to visualize an object when selected. We also chose to visualize the entire outline of a selected object when it is partially obscured by another object. I guess I think it is cool because we did it too. What can I say? Our blog, our rules.

What to avoid:

🔑 No way to return to the app from the furniture sites —once you tap to add a piece of furniture to your cart, you are taken to the seller’s site. Let the user add something to a cart but stay in the app.

🔑 Awkward transition to portrait — the app forces you to use landscape but guess what? When it sends you to the web site to buy the furniture, you default back to portrait. Uggh.

🔑Multiple shopping carts — having to attend to multiple carts is not good. It is also not good that the app doesn’t keep track of what you have open.

🔑🔑 for Curate. Interesting overall. Good job.

To succeed, you must believe. When you believe, you will succeed. ~ DJ Khaled

In the Houzzzzz 🔑🔑🔑🔑

Houzz is on the opposite extreme of Curate, with a focus on utility and less stress on finely observed detail. This makes sense, since Houzz is a big platform with broad appeal. Interestingly enough, it is frequently the company to which Curate sends you to complete the sale of Curate-featured furniture.

First off, Houzz is not a mobile AR app but an e-commerce site with additional mobile AR features. You browse the catalog (which has categories for furniture but also appliances, silverware, and pots and pans) and some, but not all, of the items are tagged with a 3D icon denoting they are viewable in AR.

I think that has more to do with the cost of scanning objects — does it make sense to scan every single variety of butter knife? It might help the conversion rate but it would be expensive.

Mostly the View in My Room feature is reserved for big stuff — chairs, sofas, kitchen stove vent hoods, refrigerators. You select a product, read all about it on a standard 2D e-commerce UI, then you tap the View In My Room button and the app opens in augmented reality. Find a plane, the model appears, and you drag it around to position it as you want.

The UI has some cool elements to be sure: you can duplicate objects, so while there is no multi-object support, for items you might buy in sets, there’s a way to view them arranged as you see fit.

Also, the app allows you to simulate attaching an object to a ceiling (like a fan or vent) with its own little surface detection gizmo. It even provides a slide to adjust the object’s height. Not bad!

Finally, the app let’s you get more information or add something to the cart from mobile AR. This is all 2D UI that slides over the camera, but still, it is effective for what is designed to do.

The design itself is middle-of-the-road. The models don’t look great and the UI in mobile AR is rudimentary. They do a great job of keeping the screen clear and uncluttered by screen-locked UI elements but the thought really is in the engineering of the site, not the design.

All in all, Houzz is a great example of adding augmented reality to an existing shopping experience and increasing that app’s utility. Well done.

What we learned:

🔑 Adding mobile AR to existing apps pays dividends —I would almost certainly be more inclined to buy a product I could visualize in my space versus one I could not. It just improves the buying experience. Houzz is by no means a dedicated mobile AR app and yet it works mobile AR into its try-before-buy workflow really well.

🔑 Incremental addition of augmented reality is smart — just from a product management perspective, it seems like adding augmented reality in a few places to test whether it drives engagement and conversions would be fairly straightforward. I suggest designers and product people start thinking about where they could fit it into their apps.

What’s cool:

🔑 Integrated purchasing flow — you can get more information, add items to a shopping cart, and create a favorites list all without exiting mobile AR. That’s what we want to see in AR.

🔑 Ceiling surface detection is cool — it never occurred to us to use ARKit 1.0 for this but it works fine. Now we are going to be pinning things to the ceiling all the damn time.

🔑 Fast filtering for 3D — Houzz makes 3D a top-level filter. That’s cool.

🔑 Annotate and save feature/collaboration— another nice feature is the ability to snap a picture of the screen and then mark it up by drawing lines or adding text, stickers, even pictures of other products. We love collaboration feature: a natural feature for mobile AR, what with all modes of sharing content on a mobile device.

What to avoid:

🔑 Cheezy models— I feel like I’m just coming up with something so this section won’t be blank. I guess the models are cheezy and it takes you out of the experience a little. But model quality will improve as folks figure out ways to scan objects in a cost effective manner. I bet Houzz will be on it.

🔑🔑🔑🔑 for Houzz.

Does this GRÖNKULLA go with that DAGSTORP? Using IKEA Place.

IKEA Place has elements of both Curate and Houzz and uses them to great effect. As the early pioneer of mobile AR in furniture placement, it is clear the team making this app has learned a lot and it shows.

The app starts you off in the camera. You have to contend with a chatty bot welcoming you back but that is easily dismissed. Immediately you are presented with three options:

  • Image detection/object lookup — you can tap the frame icon and use image detection to identify an object and look up furniture that shares its properties (color, texture, and, if it is furniture, similar pieces in the IKEA catalog).
  • Add an item from the catalog — tap the + button and the catalog pops up. Unlike the Houzz app, everything in the IKEA Place app is ready for 3D.
  • Go to favorites — tap the icon on the right and you can look up things you’ve saved to try.

Place let’s you drop multiple items in a scene, arrange them as you wish, and tap on them for price. Tap on the price and you are sent to the IKEA website in your device browser to add the object to the cart. I really don’t see why they couldn’t complete the sale on this site à la Houzz but curious are the ways of product management and design.

Ultimately I am disappointed by what it doesn’t do because Place was an early leader in the space, but overall, IKEA gets a ton of things right. I would have expected the shopping experience to be fully integrated into Place by now but the flexibility to manipulate objects and the availability of the complete catalog are standout features for Place.

What we learned:

🔑 The bar is rising fast — IKEA Place used be the gold standard of furniture placement apps. But no longer. This is a great app. It just isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of the others. That’s actually pretty cool because it means more apps are finding ways to make mobile augmented reality useful to them and their users.

What’s cool:

🔑 Starting in the camera— y’all know we here at Torch are all about the camera as the design platform. IKEA Place opens into a camera view. You have no doubt that this is an app that will be interacting with the environment. That’s great.

🔑Image capture and product look-up — this feature was easy to use and the results exceeded my expectations, especially for results that fit a color scheme of the captured object.

🔑 Multi-object—as the makers of the first multi-scene, multi-object, multi-user, real-time collaborative mobile AR productivity app, we like seeing others embrace AR’s possibilities. While you can’t manipulate the objects much or group them and lock them in position, being able to pull multiple furniture models in and try it together is a useful feature.

🔑 The entire catalog is 3D-ready— This is easier for IKEA than it would be for Houzz since it does not resell other furniture makers.

What to avoid:

🔑 Cheezy models —Again, model quality takes me out of the buying experience. IKEA controls their inventory and has less of it. I’d expect better.

🔑 Leaving the app to complete the sale — really no reason Houzz can avoid this but IKEA can’t. Place is falling behind.

🔑🔑🔑 for Place. You used to be a leader. But you placed yourself, IKEA.

First Look at a Furniture Placement Prototype #builtwithtorch

We thought it would be an interesting challenge to use the Torch AR prototyping app to build prototypes of features we think would be cool additions to the the apps we reviewed.

Based on the reviews above, it should surprise no one that we would love to see a way to keep the e-commerce experience in the mobile AR app. But instead of using 2D, screen-locked elements, we thought it would be fun to prototype a shopping experience that includes adding items to a cart and check-out, all in 3D.

We also wanted to show the ability to change product properties, like the color of the object.

Both of these features were prototyped in Torch AR by Susie Andreson along with an entire purchase workflow, from information gathering to checkout with Apple Pay. We plan to post a blog on the entire project soon, but we wanted to share some of the work to highlight what is possible in mobile AR.

Shout out to Susie

They’ll try to close the door on you… Just open it. ~ DJ Khaled

When Susie Andreson, started with Torch as our first Augmented Reality Design Apprentice, we weren’t sure how far an experienced designer new to mobile AR design specifically and 3D in general could get designing prototypes with Torch AR. But we, and Susie, were game to find out. Susie brought lots of experience in design, with long stints at Adidas and Intel, but she wanted to learn 3D design and we were interested in how the tool would work for her. And, despite plentiful bugs and a constantly evolving interaction system, Susie showed us. Her tenure is a testament to what motivation, talent, and organization can get someone.

Susie, you are an amazing colleague. Your doggedness in making the apprenticeship happen, your determination, once the app was ready, to work through the bugs, and your meticulous attention to making your prototypes excellent set a high standard. Thanks for showing us what is possible.

We go hard. In everything we do we’re going to accomplish our victory and our goal. If it takes a day, a year, or 20 years, we’re going to win. I haven’t taken a loss because everything I’ve done has been a working process to win. From being a kid on them turntables to becoming where I am is not a loss. It’s a blessing. ~ DJ Khaled