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Virtual reality tools push the boundaries of interior design

Google’s Tilt Brush allows for a form of virtual painting.

For interior designers, communicating a concept to clients and contractors can be hair-pullingly stressful. It's understandable. Rooms are three-dimensional and real world, with a dizzying amount of things to factor in: furniture, finishes, fabrics, lighting. The conventional methods for conveying an idea, however, tend to be 2-D – sketches and renderings, plans and sections – and often don't fully capture the sparkle inside the designer's head.

New virtual reality tools, from both start-ups (Decorilla, iStaging) and tech giants (Google, Facebook's Oculus Rift), are attempting to change that. Designers can now create richly imaginative digital environments that are both immersive and expressive. Clients, by way of a headset, can then step inside and walk around their future home or condo, gaining a deeper understanding of the intended look, feel and configuration.

Ikea is an early adopter. Last year it launched an app, the Ikea VR Experience, that allowed shoppers to tour different kitchen layouts, opening and closing the drawers and seeing the space with different finishes. And as of Feb. 28 in the retailer's Etobicoke, Ont. location, shoppers could have a go at making pancakes in a virtual kitchen. Since 2013, the furniture company has also had an Augmented Reality Catalogue, which enables homeowners to virtually place bookcases and couches in their home to see how the finished product would look.

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New York City-based Decorilla, which is helmed by Canadian CEO Agnieszka Wilk, refines the idea further. It matches clients with designers (who don't have to be in the same city, as long as they are happy to communicate online) based on stylistic preferences and budget. The homeowners then provide a floor plan, some pictures and basic measurements, which sets the designer off to build a hyper-realistic version of their vision. "I've been in the position of trying to sit down on a sofa that isn't there because of the great sense of being in one of the proposed spaces," says Wilk. Decorilla has partnered with major retailers such as Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, meaning much of the digital furniture is also for sale in the real world (often at a partner's discount), morphing the house tour into a shopping trip.

Google's Tilt Brush is a more artistic, rather than realistic, alternative. As opposed to meticulously building a room, it's for "painting in 3-D space," according to Elisabeth Morant, a Google product manager in California.

Sculptors and installation artists were some of the earliest users, but "we have seen architects and designers using Tilt Brush," says Morant. It's "expression above precision," she says, adding that it's also useful for creating prototypes quickly. Those prototypes can then be exported to more precise 3-D modelling tools, sent to headset-wearing clients directly, broken down into still images, or made into video vignettes that can be uploaded to YouTube. "How to share content in virtual space is a totally new domain," Morant says. But the range of options already available allows just about anyone to see the idea, from every possible angle.

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