Wayfair takes augmented reality, Project Tango to the enterprise

With the app, customers would be able to see how a piece of furniture fits in their living room

Virtual and augmented realities aren't just for gaming.

Wayfair Inc. , a Boston-based, 14-year-old e-commerce company that sells home furnishings, is working on an app based on Google's Project Tango technology that would put augmented reality, and one day virtual reality, squarely in the enterprise.

If all goes as planned, customers using Wayfair's app would go beyond looking at a photo of a love seat or table, reading the measurements and wondering how the piece would look in their living room.

The app would use Project Tango's mapping, computer vision, depth-sensing, 3D-motion tracking and machine-learning technology to allow customers to see – on their Android smartphone or tablet – how a piece of furniture would look in their home.

If a customer walks around a room with the app running on a tablet, for instance, it would appear as if the object is in the room and she's seeing it from different angles on the screen.

"This really makes sense for our business model," said Mike Festa, director of Wayfair Next, the company's research and development lab. "It's an extension of our experience … It will really help us compete with brick-and-mortar stores. It also should help with the rate of returns because it helps customers see the real one-to-one size of the product."

With online shopping, customers get the measurements and dimensions for a product, but no sense of the space needed.

The new app, according to Festa, should help overcome what is a big problem for e-commerce companies.

"The Tango app lets you see a life-size version of the product so you can get a quick analysis of if it's a good fit or not," he added. "In this case, you can see what a 3-foot-wide love seat looks like in your space, and you can make a more informed decision."

"This type of app shows the potential for augmented reality and how it can be used by enterprises to give their customers a much better feel for their products and even services," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "I can see a wide variety of businesses adopting this approach as the technology becomes better. Architects and contractors will be able to show homeowners exactly how a new addition will blend onto their existing home, for example. Retailers will be able to show you how a particular outfit will look on you. All of this allows consumers to make more informed decisions."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said he expects consumers will be intrigued with a Project Tango app.

"If the app does everything it says it will do, and does it quickly, accurately and looks representative of reality, then I think it will do quite well," Moorhead said. "Accuracy is very important with this app, and if it's off by a half inch, it could be an issue. Speed is important, too, as consumers don't want to wait around for long... If it doesn't deliver on those vectors, it will become a problem."

Wayfair was one of the companies Google touted at I/O, its annual developer conference in Mountain View, Calif., last week.

The company's sessions on Project Tango created a lot of interest with its demo of how organizations, including Wayfair and the American Museum of Natural History, are using it.

First announced in 2014, Project Tango gives devices the ability to know their position in the world, using sensors and other technologies, and processing the information quickly, without using GPS or other external signals.

Google said it has incorporated basic Tango APIs into Android N, the next version of Google's mobile OS, which is expected to be released late this summer.

Lenovo is expected this summer to release the first of what Google says will be "many, many" Project Tango-enabled smartphones. More information on the smartphone, including a release date, is expected at Lenovo's Tech World conference on June 9 in San Francisco.

When that first Tango-enabled device reaches the market, Wayfair wants its app to be ready to go.

Wayfair first entertained the idea of a Project Tango app last summer when Festa built a proof-of-concept app during a company hack-a-thon.

The idea caught on and the company began working on what will be the official Wayfair Tango app in January.

The company has about 3,000 of its approximately 7 million products on the app. Festa said the company can add about 10,000 products per month and hopes to have tens of thousands ready by the time the app goes live this summer.

At this point, Wayfair is focused on creating an app that will work on a two-dimensional device screen. It's an augmented reality application, where the user sees the real world, but artificial, computer-generated content is placed in it.

One day, though, Festa said he hopes Wayfair will have a virtual reality app where customers will use headsets.

"Seeing it on a device on a two-dimensional screen is a lot more natural and a lot more now," said Festa said. "With a lot of virtual reality or augmented reality, you need the headsets. That can be really intimidating. With Tango, people can get this now and it's an immediate adoption that I think we'll see because it'll be more approachable… There's a lower barrier to entry. There's a lot of potential for what VR could be but not for right now."

This story, "Wayfair takes augmented reality, Project Tango to the enterprise" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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