Flat-packed furniture and clean design icon Ikea announced this month the release of a pilot virtual reality app called the Ikea VR Experience. The app, which will run on the Steam game platform for use with the HTC Vive headset, launches at a time when the construction and design worlds are just beginning to test the waters of what virtual reality can mean for their practitioners and customers.

"Virtual reality is developing quickly, and in five to 10 years it will be an integrated part of people's lives," predicts Jesper Brodin, managing director at Ikea of Sweden and Range & Supply Manager at Ikea Group. "We see that virtual reality will play a major role in the future of our customers. For instance, someday it could be used to enable customers to try out a variety of home furnishing solutions before buying them."

Right now, the Ikea VR Experience can be used by anyone with an HTC Vive headset and a PC. The app immerses the user in life-size version of one of three differently-styled Ikea kitchens, and allows them to change the colors of cabinets and drawers with a click. Designers who focus on universal design will appreciate the perspective feature, shown at right, which gives users the ability to view the kitchen from different heights, such as that of a 3.3-foot-tall child or a 6.4-foot adult.

"We also see the Ikea VR Experience as an opportunity to co-create with people all around the world," says Martin Enthed, IT Manager for Ikea's in-house agency Ikea Communications. "We hope that users will contribute to our virtual reality development by submitting ideas on how to use virtual reality and improve the virtual kitchen."

Room for Improvement?

Recognizing that all emerging technologies have to start somewhere, Ikea says it's still in the "exploratory phase" of using virtual reality, and that the Ikea VR Experience is a pilot app intended to solicit consumer feedback. The company will keep the app updated until August 2016 when this particular pilot program ends. Undoubtedly, the feedback period will point out a number of opportunities for the app—and potentially others like it—to progress.

As it is, the Ikea VR Experience is limited in its functionality. In e-mailed feedback to questions from Remodeling, Ikea representatives indicate that users will be able to interact with the kitchens by opening doors, placing a frying pan on the stove, or tossing something in the recycling bin, all of which can give homeowners a chance to see how the kitchen functions with everyday tasks. However, the design aspect of the app only applies to changing the cabinet colors. The floorplans are static, cabinet elements cannot be switched out, and users are not able to forward design ideas to friends or contractors, or place orders through the app.

This is in comparison to products like Chief Architect's Room Planner app for iPad, which has design functionality users expect from Chief Architect, plus features like dynamic heights (like Ikea's perspective feature), and gyroscope integration that lets users walk through the spaces they've designed. Chief Architect's vice president of sales and marketing Scott Harris says the company has been watching virtual reality technology as it emerges and plans to use it "when it works well enough to help customers see and feel the space."

"We've been looking at virtual reality for some time and one of the things we've been doing is implementing the VR aspect without the need for headsets so far," Harris says. "Instead, we've implemented features that basically take over what the headset is trying to do. At some point, the technology will get better and I think the advantage when it does is that it will let you immerse yourself in it."

For now, Harris says headsets makes for a bit of a clumsy interface, and one that reportedly can make users feel nauseated. Additionally, he says virtual reality in its current form does little to really let the user interact with the space they're experiencing.

Virtual reality has been getting more use on the commercial side of design and construction than on the residential side. Remodeling's sister publication Architect recently wrote about how the technology will make its way into the market in 2016. Have you tried a virtual reality experience as it relates to residential construction? Do you have questions about the technology's usefulness in our industry? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments as we continue to investigate this emerging platform.