COVID-19 SPECIAL

Furniture stores turn to AR to fight coronavirus pandemic

VIDEO: SCREENING EAGLE DREAMLAB

At an augmented reality (AR) presentation in August last year, Mr Marcel Poser, chief executive officer of Singapore-based inspection technology firm Screening Eagle Dreamlab, recited the famous words of the late novelist William S. Burroughs: "When you stop growing, you start dying."

He was making the point that businesses need to be constantly on their toes and leverage cutting-edge technology to stay ahead of the game.

A few months later, the world was pummelled by Covid-19.

Today, Burroughs' words resonate with a newfound urgency, especially for businesses struggling with stagnation.

However, tech-savvy furniture retailers Ikea and Castlery were able to draw visitors to their online stores despite the havoc Covid-19 was wreaking.

Ikea's online presence enabled it to continue serving customers even as its physical stores were closed due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, Castlery moved quickly to create a digital replica of its collection just before the circuit breaker measures were put in place from April 7 to June 1.

Both companies leveraged AR, a technology they started exploring a few years ago.

Augmented reality differs from virtual reality (VR) in that it functions in real time. VR obscures one's vision and replaces it with an alternate reality and is usually enabled only with bulky headgear. AR, on the other hand, enables transparency of the immediate surroundings and adds to it. The mobile game Pokemon Go is one example.

Unlike VR, the technology fuelling AR can be easily downloaded on smartphones.

Currently, Apple has the world's largest platform of AR-enabled devices, as well as an exhaustive range of AR apps on its App Store, according to its website. Apple's hardware and software are also designed from the ground up for a more immersive AR experience.

The burgeoning popularity of AR is boosted by its affordability.


Ikea's augmented reality app. PHOTO: IKEA

Swedish retailer Ikea - one of the first furniture brands to use AR - launched its Ikea Place AR app in 2017. Designed in Sweden using Apple's ARKit framework, it is constantly updated with Ikea's new product lines.

The app instantly scales products, based on the user's room dimensions, with 98 per cent accuracy and also simulates the texture of fabric used, as well as how light and shadows appear on Ikea's upholstery.

In the light of Covid-19, Castlery's new normal entails maintaining both a physical 11,000 sq ft showroom in Jit Poh Building in Keppel Road as well as its new AR-enabled online store.

Co-founder Declan Ee says that during the circuit breaker, Castlery launched a "Stay Home With Us" online campaign aimed at bringing the showroom to its customers. The campaign included a virtual tour, an AR-enabled styling of living spaces through its app and a 14-day home trial of the furniture pieces.

"The original timing for our AR app release was for the second half of 2020, but when the circuit breaker was announced, we accelerated development for a late-April launch," says Mr Ee.

"It took us almost 18 hours to capture our entire physical showroom digitally before the lockdown.

"Our tech team then had to spend the next two days mapping out the website and linking to the app while tagging every single item.

"The do-or-die mentality triggered by the circuit breaker definitely created an adrenaline rush for our team to power through."


Castlery uses AR to recreate its inventory online for purchase. PHOTO: CASTLERY SINGAPORE

During the first three weeks of the circuit breaker, the Castlery team finalised the AR development, fixed numerous glitches arising from 3D scaling and launched more than 250 products for AR styling in its app.

Mr Ee says that by late April, the app's AR function was ready.

The design of the app addressed a key issue that plagued online shopping - the lack of a tactile quality only possible in a physical store.

He says: "The design of our AR app not only helps our customers visualise how items will look, but is also embedded with the crucial 'touch and feel' element when shopping for furniture."

The app design replicates textures, hues and dimensions to take the guesswork out of an online purchase.

Castlery's team used Apple's ARKit 2 framework and the iPad Pro to develop the app quickly and affordably.

 
 
 

"Business has been significantly impacted by Covid-19 so we had to adapt and not simply sit back," says Mr Ee. "The AR launch is us fighting back and we are hopeful it will improve our retail business over the long term."

Regular Castlery customer Nelson Yap, 38, who is the founder of menswear label Benjamin Barker, likes the app. He says: "I appreciate the functionality and seamless experience of the AR tool, which is especially useful in visualising how different products look in specific spaces. This not only saves time, but also helps ensure we buy the right products for the look we want."

The next stage for Castlery, established in 2014, is when 5G networks are in place. "AR will get a big boost and, for Castlery, it will increase the digital experience for our customers exponentially."

ABILITY TO HAVE X-RAY VISION

For Singapore-based Dreamlab, AR has helped the inspection technology company develop "X-ray vision".

It sells this feature to governments, property owners and engineers to save millions of dollars in disruptions from decaying infrastructure such as concrete buildings and mass rapid transit systems.

Its range of new AR apps is the first to dispense with clunky inspection hardware and conventional engineering tools that move at a glacial pace to print reports of defects.


3D images of objects in the concrete can be raised above the surface to get a clearer view. PHOTO: SCREENING EAGLE DREAMLAB

AR is combined with sensors equipped with artificial intelligence as well as radar- and ultrasonic-wave technology in its products, such as the Screening Eagle Inspect and Proceq GPR Live, to "see through" concrete and instantly create a 3D digital model of the defective site.

The Proceq GPR Live was used during a recent inspection of the Central Expressway road tunnels.

Says Mr Craig Rice, executive director of Dreamlab Singapore: "A very typical use for the AR app is during renovations of existing structures."

"Architects or engineers might want to cut a hole into an existing concrete wall or drill into the wall to attach a new building element," he says.

"In this case, they need to make sure they do not hit anything in the wall when they are cutting or drilling into the concrete. This is what we call the 'hit prevention' use case."

Mr Rice says that even with original detailed construction drawings, it is difficult to determine the exact location of steel reinforcing bars, water pipes or electrical cables which are concealed by concrete.

Before Dreamlab's AR-powered technology, the typical work flow was to use rudimentary scans, transfer these to a USB stick and then into a PC for processing.

"Today, what would take several days is now done in minutes, and at almost 50 per cent shaved off the total project cost," says Mr Rice.


Marvel universe tech within reach

Film studio stalwart Marco Bardelli believes augmented reality (AR), together with 5G networks, will allow everyone to work like Tony Stark, the Marvel character played by Robert Downey Jr in the Ironman movie franchise.

"For a high-spec AR environment seen in the Ironman films where Stark interacts with videos, images and data, you will need a full 5G roll-out," says Mr Bardelli, who is the executive director of Singapore-based integrated media entertainment and creative services company Infinite Studios as well as the senior executive director of Nongsa Digital Park in Batam.


AR game based on animation X-Hunters. PHOTO: INFINITE STUDIOS

Singapore is expected to have 5G Standalone (SA) networks from January next year, with a gradual scaling up of coverage nationwide by end-2025.

Mr Bardelli says Infinite Studios launched its AR division last month as he expects AR to be a key growth sector in the tech space, going by his work in Nongsa and Infinite Studios.

Infinite, whose services include animation and special effects, co-produced the hit film Crazy Rich Asians in 2018.

The 100ha Nongsa Digital Park, which opened in March last year, was first proposed by Infinite Studios and developed by its parent firm Citramas Group.

It is a "digital bridge" connecting Singapore and Indonesia, focused on seeding a new high-tech community in Batam that will be the "birthplace" of Indonesia's next unicorns - start-up firms valued at more than a billion dollars, says Mr Bardelli.

"At Infinite, we noticed recently that some of our clients who were requesting content production were also asking if we could develop AR applications related to such content," he says.

He adds that with the confirmation of the 5G roll-out starting next year, it is a good time now to invest in AR.

He says the development of AR depends on headgear, smartphones and tablets but, currently, headgear is too bulky.

"The holy grail is when AR headgear can be designed to look like Ray-Bans," says Mr Bardelli, who is closely following developments in devices such as Microsoft's HoloLens, a headset that contains a holographic computer.

With a lighter headset, he expects AR technology to "change everything".

"Just imagine, for students, lessons will no longer be static as the AR technology will enable 3D holograms of subject matter in real time, either through tablets and smartphones or popping up right before their eyes on the headset lenses," he says.

"For geography lessons, the entire class can be transported to a volcano and learn about the inner workings of the earth's core without moving an inch from their desks."

He says there is interest in developing AR-enabled contact lenses once the headgear is whittled down into something as light as eyewear.

"If the hardware can be redesigned in the near future, even news reporting will be transformed. You could be telling this story which the reader scans through AR-enabled glasses and a hologram pop-up appears on the lenses instead of a 2D photo or video," says Mr Bardelli.

"Very much like Ironman."