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Mullins: Savvy software lets you visualize your buys

Just what would that new cherry ed Swedish couch look like in your living room, and how would a set of retro-style glasses look on your face?

For all the tens of millions of dollars retailers spend building lavish shops and online marketplaces, a question like that is perhaps the thorniest challenge for marketers — whether selling at physical stores or online.

Now, a few companies like Ikea and Glasses.com are starting to launch virtual reality smartphone and tablet apps that use especially savvy software to show customers how something will look — literally.

At their best, the apps can simulate objects in 3D as realistically as any Hollywood movie special effects, even what glasses look like while you turn your head and they slide down your nose — something only recently made possible by the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones and tablets and spurred on by especially tough competition between physical and online merchants.

To try the Ikea system, just grab a copy of the company’s 2014 catalog — the paper one — which should be appearing in mailboxes soon, if not already.

Ikea hasn’t widely publicized the virtual reality feature. So, to use it, just download the Ikea catalog app, then flip through the paper catalog, and if you fancy an item, scan the catalog page with your phone’s camera. The app recognizes the page and lets you pick a specific couch, bookcase, chair or whatever.

Then you literally drop that catalog on the floor where the Ikea item would go at home, then look at that space through your phone camera and screen. The software detects the location of the catalog on the floor — in the proper position and scale — and creates an image of the item in that space, realistically enough that you want to go sit on the virtual “chair.”

You can even walk around the room, and the software interprets your position to show that item’s various sides as if it really were there. Here, the software has what can be considered either a glitch or a feature. Because the furniture doesn’t literally exist, you can lay on the floor and play like they’ve had a sofa dropped on you, and send a photo to friends.

“As much as this is about selling a product online, it’s really about brand perception too,” said Kit Yarrow, a nationally known consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University. “We’re all so enamored with tech now that we see things like this and think ‘How cool is Ikea getting.’ And it gets attention in a cluttered marketplace.”

Retailers have tried such augmented reality systems over the last few years in one form or another. Sherwin-Williams has an online system that lets potential paint customers drag and drop various colors onto scenes of bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens — or upload their own room photos to see what various shades look like together. The system is perhaps best used to distinguish between very different colors (blue versus yellow) as a disclaimer online reminds users that different computer monitors display colors differently.

Just this July, 1-800-Contacts launched an especially incredible app for its Glasses.com division that lets users upload photos of themselves and see glasses on their faces — including in 3D. To use it, you take a video of your face at different angles while looking in a mirror. The software then shows your face in 3D, just as a video game maker or Hollywood effects technician would, and the system can display thousands of glasses as options.

The software even lets users pivot their virtual heads left and right and slide the virtual glasses up and down their noses to see how they look peering over the top of the lenses. Slogan: “It’s not about finding glasses that look good. It’s about finding glasses that look good on you!” The company debuted the software at the ultra-brainy TED 2013 conference.

Perhaps the biggest bonus: You don’t feel like a dork standing in a glasses shop repeatedly trying on new glasses and pivoting your head around — all while not seeing clearly because you’re just wearing demo lenses.

Physical retailers and online merchants have good reason to launch such visualization apps.

Physical retailers can use the apps as a way to jump forward in technology and bridge the chasms between their in-person stores, their huge inventory in warehouses and customers sitting on the couch at home — and potentially compete more with the runaway success of online rivals like Amazon. For purely online merchants like Glasses.com, these apps can directly reach the shopper with thousands of options, organized in easy and fun ways to sort them.

And for both physical and online merchants, these apps tap into the millions of phones and tablets that have grown sophisticated enough that such apps work especially well. As a bonus, those phones are almost always linked to people’s social media, so they can shop for a couch or pair of glasses and instantly tweet to their followers and let them vote on their favorites.

By the way, after I showed the glasses demo to consumer psychologist Yarrow with my picks for frames, she voted on a pair of light green Eddie Bauer square-ish ones for me — all while sitting in her home in California. If you’d like to vote on my picks too, just send me a note., I wasn’t even looking for new glasses, but the app sure has me thinking now.

Other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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Perhaps some week will go by when this column won’t mention a new menu item at McDonald’s. But it’s such a huge chain, and lately they’ve been going toe to toe with Taco Bell’s furious innovation labs. And so, I alert you to the news that McDonald’s is launching steak — for breakfast on a variety of sandwiches — first in a select few locations last month, and then lots more in the coming days. Look for Steak McMuffins, I’m guessing, and I’ve seen images floating out there of a Steak & Egg Bagel. Any hungry people out there who try it, let me know what you think.

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More than a few friends of mine have bought Thomasville or Broyhill furniture over the years, and we have, too. Sadly, the parent company Furniture Brands International looks like it’s on the brink of Chapter 11, The Wall Street Journal reports, as revenues fell by half recently to about $1 billion. Blame the housing collapse, and perhaps the success of niche players like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware and even HSN’s own Ballard Designs. It’s not the first furniture stumble in this town either. Exhibit A: Robb & Stucky.

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The Capital Grille in Tampa is launching a neat way to support your local nonprofit architectural landmarks — by selling cocktails. “The Cocktail Conservation Society” is a four-week “lounge event” that will sell classic cocktails from Tampa’s history, with part of the proceeds from each week going to landmarks around town. Tampa Theater’s week ends Sept. 15, Tampa Union Station is Sept. 16 to 22, The Cuban Club is Sept. 23 to 29, and The Italian Club is Sept. 30 to Oct. 6.

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I report this news with a sigh. Kmart just launched its first holiday ads on TV. My calendar says September. That is all I will say about that — except for this. Kit Yarrow, who I quoted above, has a different take on Christmas Creep. She observes that people now “shop” all year long for holiday gifts online by placing them on their online wish lists. So retailers have very good reason to advertise early, if not all year long. Hence, the 2014 holiday season now starts December 26th.


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