Return to PLACE: Augmented Reality and the Aestheticization of Logistics

Jeffrey Liu / 2018
Yale School of Architecture

The Promise of PLACE

A couple stands in the living room with expressions of unpleasant surprise towards a tilted couch too large for its allotted space. A woman looks on anxiously as another woman grips a measuring tape with shaking hands, inadvertently bending the stiff yellow strip as it falls out of her hands. “Less of this”, proclaims a disembodied, but friendly voice in Swedish-tinted English. “And probably more of this”, the narrator continues, as the once frustrated couple snuggles contentedly on a slightly smaller couch, while the two women swap out an unruly measuring tape for a smartphone and smile at one another. As images of homes from around the world cycle in quick succession, a single boldened word appears on screen: PLACE (Figure 1). “We want to make it easier for people everywhere to imagine a better place”, the narrator declares, as a global world of individualized local dwellings is indexed in the background.[1]

This is the future that IKEA Place promises. As an augmented reality smartphone app developed on Apple’s ARKit software, IKEA Place allows a user to insert true-to-scale rendered furniture from the IKEA catalogue into the space of their own home. After first scanning the objects in a given room using the smartphone’s camera and accelerometer, IKEA Place maps the various objects in the room and detects empty horizontal surfaces upon which the furniture can be placed. Then, with flicks, pinches, and swipes, the user can browse and select a given piece of furniture from the catalog and move it around a room at the touch of their fingertips before setting it into place. Marketed as the ultimate “try before you buy” app, IKEA Place allows users to avoid the muddled and uncomfortable mishaps outlined in the video advertisement.[2]

The app presents the user with an accurate image of furniture within their space so that the user can perceive the literal and aesthetic “fit” between a piece of furniture and the space of the home. IKEA claims that the sizing of this rendered furniture is accurate to the millimeter with photorealistic material detailing, simulating the experience of owning a particular piece of IKEA furniture before one makes the decision to purchase.

The advertisement campaign for IKEA Place characterizes the app as a logistical technology, eliminating common problems that customers face when buying IKEA furniture to make the act of purchasing a smoother and more efficient endeavor. The before/after contrast outlined in the video emphasizes how IKEA Place streamlines the process of buying so that the hassles of physically measuring spaces and moving furniture are simplified into gestures of the fingertips onto a smartphone’s screen. But IKEA Place is not merely a tool for the logistical concerns of the consumer; it also plays a role in the larger strategy of IKEA’s logistical operation.

As the world’s largest furniture retailer, IKEA manages a massive global supply chain that produces standardized flat-pack furniture kits for retail around the world. Along this supply chain, everything from raw materials to flat-pack boxes to the furniture pieces themselves are standardized to ensure the smoothest logistical operation. IKEA’s logistical operation, like that of most logistical actors, is concerned with the efficient movement and flow of objects between sites rather than the physical objects or sites themselves. As a consequence, this logistical strategy overlooks concerns of human aesthetic experience, producing sites of unfathomable spatial logic and objects designed for standardized transport rather than aesthetic consumption. When these products arrive in domestic spaces at the end of the supply chain, however, these standardized logistical products must become personalized aesthetic objects. Thus, IKEA faces a problematic discrepancy between a logistical regime and an aesthetic regime. While IKEA must turn physical objects into logistical products for ease of logistical distribution, these products must be re- ascribed as aesthetic objects when they reach the consumer’s domestic space.

Fig. 1

As an interface capable of translating logistical spaces and products into visually consumable information, augmented reality emerges as a powerful tool for re-aestheticizing logistics. Ultimately, IKEA Place is not merely a tool for streamlining the supply chain at the retail end, but aestheticizes a logistical regime of viewing space, transplanting logistical products into the space of the personal home as aesthetic items. The importance of PLACE in IKEA’s advertising campaign is indicative of this strategy. While logistics is agnostic to site as a place of bodily experience, IKEA Place promises to bring a logistical mode of thinking back into the realm of spatial experience, by employing logistical space planning technology towards the experience of one’s own PLACE. Yet in viewing space only as a container for the efficient placement of goods, IKEA Place reproduces the personal home as logistical space, detaching the home from notions of PLACE. Instead, IKEA Place aestheticizes IKEA’s logistical strategy into spectacle, making visible an otherwise immaterial operation for the purposes of advertisement.

Logistics as Encrypted Infrastructure

As a global logistical actor, IKEA manages a flow of material goods that begins from the processing of raw material, the subsequent fabrication of furniture pieces, the distribution of these flat-packed furniture pieces to retail warehouses around the world, and ultimately, the arrival and assembly of the furniture in the consumer’s home. [3] In order to maximize the efficiencies of this global transport of goods, IKEA adopts a logistical paradigm of spatial operation, concerned less with the physical goods themselves than the the flow of goods, and the delivery of the right thing to the right place at the right time. In theorizing a logistics for military operations, Oskar Morgenstern notes that “goods and services have a place and a time value”, meaning that the value of any given item depends on where it is within the supply chain and when it is delivered. [4] The importance of place and time value points to the “sadly neglected” variable of transportation, which Peter Drucker refers to as “the economy’s dark continent” in his essay of the same name. [5] In implying that the location of a material good and the time that it takes to deliver matter, logistics expands its purview beyond material goods and questions the economic costs of transportation. Drucker conceptually outlines logistics as a shift in focus from “production” to “the flow of physical goods”. [6] While transportation once “function[ed] as a necessary evil” that companies accepted as an inevitable cost, the movement of goods subsequently became a primary focus of profit maximization.

To fully maximize the profits associated with transportation, the sites where goods are stored for transportation must be organized according to the most efficient possible logical arrangements. Automation is the inevitable outcome of this desire for efficiency, as computer software provides greater capacity for the accurate organization of goods in the most efficient manner. Often, these software calculations result in a spatial organization that appears irrational and disordered, but is in actuality organized around the principle of highest efficiency. The concept of chaotic storage encapsulates this frenzied hyper-efficiency. Chaotic storage, an organizational paradigm used by Amazon, dictates that products be grouped according to the time that they arrive at the warehouse, meaning that different products are placed on the same shelf so that empty space can be immediately filled without wasting the time and resources needed for organizing goods. Whereas humans may organize goods according to similarity in the item, alphabetical order, or price order to simplify the process of finding any individual item, digital software only needs the barcode of the item and the barcode of the shelf onto which it was placed to locate any given item. Under the paradigm of chaotic storage, items are stored more quickly and twice the amount of goods can be stored within the same space. [7]

As computerized logics such as those behind the paradigm of chaos storage begin to shape logistical space, this space becomes a “labyrinth which outthinks the people who employ it”: hyper-efficient according to its own machine logics, but inscrutable to any rational understanding by human beings. [8] As a consequence, human workers must rely on digital technology to navigate these spaces organized by computer logics. It is for this purpose that augmented reality proves useful within the context of logistics, as it decrypts spatially encoded computer logics into an easily readable visual or sensory overlay. In a DHL internal report about the potential applications of augmented reality for logistical operations, the company speculates how AR can optimize the process of picking. [9] Using image recognition software and automatic barcode scanning, the AR system can detect the user’s location within the warehouse and guide the user towards the desired item through optimal paths of navigation. In adding graphic overlays to the worker’s vision, the AR device interfaces between logistical space and human vision, translating the organizational logic of digital algorithms into a spatial aesthetic experience.

Logistical Vision and the Aesthetic Experience of PLACE

PLACE: the bold white text anchors the screen as a constant overlay as the viewer is afforded glimpses of a variety of homes around the world: snowy cottages, red brick apartment complexes, houses buried under green hills, and igloos. The montage is a global collection of localized PLACEs with a clear message: despite the global reach of IKEA’s standardized furniture units as logistical products, these products are re-ascribed with the particularities and peculiarities of PLACE. This advertisement for IKEA Place claims that the technology can invert the strategy of logistics. Whereas logistics takes aesthetic objects and organizes them according to the logic of spatial efficiency, IKEA Place employs the technology of space- planning to design the experience of PLACE.

The augmented reality of IKEA Place is not far off from those used to navigate logistical landscapes. Both IKEA Place and technologies used in warehouses rely on image recognition and spatial mapping to produce a paradigm of logistical vision, which sees space not as humans experience it, but as an array of image recognition constellations and gridded surfaces. Built on Apple’s ARKit software for smartphones, IKEA Place uses the phone’s accelerometer and camera to map the objects within a given room, identify horizontal planes, and recognize existing items of furniture that may be similar to items within the IKEA catalogue. Using a technology called visual inertial odometry, a smartphone first finds notable points within a room, whether high contrast zones, curves, edges, etc. Then, the device senses its own orientation relative to the

tracked points on camera, using its accelerometer to estimate the three dimensional positions of each point relative to the camera source. [10]

Once these feature points are mapped in three dimensional space, ARKit must convert these points into recognizable images. AR views spaces as a constellation: a set of feature points in their relative positions to one another. For object recognition to occur, the constellation on camera is compared to a library of known reference images with their own unique constellations (Figure 2). [11] From this comparison, the AR device can recognize horizontal and vertical surfaces, as well as specific items such as furniture or human faces. Thus, when IKEA Place scans a given room, it can identify the surfaces upon which furniture is to be placed, the empty space on that surface between objects, and the types of furniture that are already within a room. This paradigm of machine vision is a logistical vision, viewing space as a set of parameters for the storage of objects, not as a medium of sensory experience.

However, IKEA Place claims to differ from other forms of logistical vision due to its application towards the organization of the home. In the DHL report, the company lists warehouse planning as a popular application of augmented reality in logistics; AR can be used to visualize potential warehouse layouts in full scale, capable of detecting the potentials within a given space and optimize its use according to logistical algorithms. [12] Using AR technology, warehouse planners can access a logistical paradigm of viewing space, which can be employed to maximize logistical efficiency. In contrast, IKEA Place seems to employ logistical vision as a means to an aesthetic end, rather than a logistical end. Using the same AR technology to map empty space and coordinate the efficient placement of goods, IKEA Place helps consumers construct their domestic spaces according to the spatial experiences they desire.

Fig. 2

This redirection of focus to individualized homes implies a return to the value of place as bodily experience, a value which has been lost in a shift from experiential to logistical space planning. Despite the significance of place and time value in logistics, logistics does not regard place as an inherent value. Though the goal of logistics is to deliver the right thing to the right place at the right time, this definition of place is defined only in terms of its relative position along the supply chain. The logistical definition of place is based on its connectivity to other sites, rather than the physical experience of a site itself. The transition from an experiential to a logistical definition of place is evident in the example of Paris’s Les Halles Market and its relocation in the 1970s to the outer suburb of Rungis. The wholesale food markets at Les Halles constituted an urban public experience known as the “Louvre of the People”, a “visceral and vivacious culture” of family owned businesses oriented towards working class customers. [13] When there became a need to “modernize the French food system” so that quality could be “normalized and standardized”, Parisian administrators moved the market to a location outside of the city where commerce could occur more efficiently. This relocation reflected a greater trend amongst wholesale terminal markets, which were “located in the peripheries of cities, where land was cheaper and transportation connections were simpler”. [14] Tenhoor notes that that these new markets shifted in concern from aesthetic experience to logistical operation, writing:

Because of their peripheral location, these markets were also invisible to consumers. Architecturally, they did not need to be invested with the aesthetic qualities of earlier markets that had occupied a place of pride in the center of growing cities. They were typically uncomplicated industrial buildings, a sort of cross between an airplane hanger and a train station.

Whereas older markets in city centers were designed for aesthetic experience, newer markets on the periphery were designed for purely functional purposes. The new markets were not only externalized from the city, but effectively externalized from consumer experience, becoming effectively invisible. The French National Wholesale Markets at Rungis were not the place that Les Halles once was, a destination of collective public life, but were instead a place of proximities to major transportation infrastructures that facilitated the ease of access and commercial exchange.

IKEA Place ultimately claims a return to the aesthetic definition of place by redirecting focus onto the individual’s space of dwelling. Yet, though it claims to employ logistical vision towards the organization of the domestic home, IKEA Place effectively does the opposite. The image and spatial recognition technology turns personal space into a set of constellations and measured grids (Figure 3). IKEA Place subsumes personal place under a totalizing logistical vision, as the technology views personal space in terms of its potential for profit and maps this space for the placement of consumable products (Figure 4). IKEA Place excels in identifying the spatial fit of a particular piece into specific parcels of space, but disregards experience as a parameter in its spatial algorithm, leaving aesthetic decisions entirely up to the user. When using the app to move a virtual piece of furniture around a room at will, the user is trained to mine space as a container for objects. The smartphone screen acts as a filter that grafts logistical vision onto the space of experience. For the time that users use the app, space ceases to be an experience of the body, but is instead a field of potential spaces between existing mapped objects that might fit an EKERO armchair. While the app markets itself as a technology to bring logistics back to place, IKEA Place instead aestheticizes logistics as an advertisement for consumption.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Representing Logistics in Advertisement

IKEA has long aestheticized its own logistical operation as part of its commercial strategy, as flat-packed, unassembled furniture kits and large warehouse stores have been incorporated into its brand identity. Unlike other logistical actors, the warehouses where IKEA’s logistical activity take place are not only made available to the public, but doubly function as their retail stores. After browsing fully assembled furniture products in the showroom, customers search through the pallet racks of the warehouse to buy directly the flat-packed boxes that IKEA uses to ship its products. This commercial strategy begins largely from logistical concerns. The ubiquitous flat-pack box, for example, arises out of a desire to optimize loads for shipping and reduce transportation costs. [15] The strategy of bringing retail directly into the warehouse also reduces costs of transportation according to the idea behind of “costs-per touch”, which states that the more that an item exchanges hands, the higher the costs due to compounded transportation and handling fees. [16] Since customers go to the warehouses to pick up the packages themselves, IKEA externalizes transportation costs unto the consumer to increase their margin of profit.

These peculiarities of IKEA’s retail strategy begin as logistical concerns, but are eventually marketed as part of their brand. The IKEA warehouse and the flat-pack box have become aestheticized as part of the IKEA’s company image. In one particular advertisement campaign, for example, IKEA reconstructs furniture, such as lamps, beds, and chairs using flat- pack boxes (Figure 5). This advertisement takes the logistical item of the flat-pack box and turns it into an aesthetic object by assembling it into a form resembling furniture. The flat-pack box becomes a stand-in for IKEA’s global operation: a highly optimized space-saving object that symbolizes the prowess with which IKEA operates as a logistical actor. The advertisement attempts to cultivate a spectacle of awe for the wide-ranging extent of IKEA’s logistical operation through this representative object as the product of a hyper-optimized, hyper- rationalized global system.

The cultivation of aesthetic spectacle surrounding an infrastructural system is not a new idea. In an anthropological investigation into the nature of infrastructure, Brian Larkin notes that the physical objects of infrastructure function both technically and aesthetically. Larkin argues that infrastructure can be “an excessive fantastic object that generates desire and awe in autonomy of its technical function”, producing an aesthetic spectacle that reflects the nature of infrastructure as a monumental feat of technological prowess. [17] The power of this “infrastructure fetishism” can even outweigh its functional benefits, as is the case in Larkin’s example of Albania building of “miles of empty roads” despite the fact that “the socialist state largely prevented ownership of cars”. [18] Larkin argues that “the deeply affectual relation people have to infrastructures” contributes greatly to their “political effect”, as infrastructural projects function often as a means of reinforcing state power. [19]

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

IKEA’s brand strategy attempts to inspire a type of “logistical fetishism” in the vein of Larkin’s “infrastructural fetishism” to portray itself as a proficient logistical actor with great technical control over a global process. Inspiring awe through logistics proves more difficult, however, as the the notion of logistics is both immaterial and inscrutable to the human eye. As global logistical operations are becoming increasingly externalized from human perception, the potential aesthetic power of infrastructure is lost. Companies such as UPS or Amazon that engage with infrastructure on a logistical front do not necessarily have physical structures to cultivate awe. Because logistics lacks an easily consumable visual form, logistical actors must search for modes of representation onto which to re-ascribe aesthetic spectacle. In a 2010 advertisement campaign entitled “We Love Logistics”, UPS employs the medium of film montage to visualize logistics as highly coordinated procession of exchanges. [20] The medium of montage is well-equipped to represent logistics as an aesthetic experience, as rhythmically spliced cuts in the video choreograph the transfer of goods through different modes of transportation into a continual, uninterrupted flow.

As an augmented reality technology that accesses paradigms of logistical vision through 3D rendered graphics, IKEA Place is also powerful tool for the representation of logistical vision into an aesthetic form. Augmented reality is ultimately a more powerful form of aesthetic spectacle than IKEA’s previous strategies for showcasing logistics through retail warehouses and flat-pack boxes because it turns one’s own home into aesthetic spectacle. Thus, while IKEA claims that its commitment to the notion of place will return logistics to the realm of bodily experience, IKEA Place is ultimately an extension of the targeted advertisement, using place as a way to personalize the message of consumption the company wishes to convey.

Targeted PLACE

A woman opens her phone and points the camera towards the empty room before her. She remembered her former roommate’s EKERO armchair, which she would sit on whenever she was alone in the apartment. Now that she had gotten her own PLACE, she could now possess one of her own. She wondered how it would look against these light wooden floors. The woman scrolls through the rendered furniture on her IKEA Place app to find the armchair. As she presses the image on screen with her fingertips, a field of gridlines appear to analyze the space. The chair appears in front of her with a prompt to PLACE it wherever she pleases. As she moves around the room to prospect for potential locations, a prompt appears on screen. “SPONSORED: We found an empty space that is perfect for a LANDSCRONA couch. Would you like to try?” The apparition of the couch materializes before her at 50% opacity, along with a prompt for other furniture pieces of similar sizes.

This scene is imagined to appear in a future IKEA Place advertisement, a speculative portrayal more truthful to the promise of IKEA Place’s augmented reality. Though IKEA Place promises to employ a logistical paradigm of organizing space back into the bodily experience of PLACE, the technology exploits the ideal of PLACE as a means for personalized augmented reality advertising. As a logical extension of the targeted advertisement, which mines personal data from a user’s online activity to predict their consumption behavior, IKEA Place mines the physical data of a user’s space to advertise commodities that would fit in their space. Because augmented reality is capable of grafting visual information onto an individual’s perception, IKEA

Place can utilize logistical paradigms of mapping space to create the ultimate targeted advertisement: a reproduced image of one’s own home as a container for consumable products, accompanied by a simulated vision of one’s future life after purchasing the suggested products.

1. IKEA, "Say Hej to IKEA Place," YouTube. N.p., 12 Sept. 2017. Web. 12 May 2018.

2. Daniel Dasey, "IKEA Place Augmented Reality App," IKEA Highlights 2017. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2018.

3.  Walter Loeb, "IKEA Is a World-Wide Wonder." Forbes. N.p., 05 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 May 2018.

4. Oskar Morgenstern, "Note on the Formulation of the Theory of Logistics," 1955. The Roots of Logistics: A Reader of Classical Contributions to the History and Conceptual Foundations of the Science of Logistics. Ed. Peter Klaus and Stefanie Muller. Berlin: Springer Berlin, 2014. 58

5. Peter Drucker, "The Economy's Dark Continent," Fortune 72 (1962): 103

6. Ibid.

7. Jay Schofield, "Why Chaotic Storage Is Perhaps the Best Inventory Management System." System ID Barcode System Blog. N.p., 03 May 2016. Web. 12 May 2018.

8. John McPhee. "Out in the Sort." New Yorker 18 Apr. 2005: 166

9. Holger Glockner et al. Augmented Reality in Logistics. DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation, 2014, Augmented Reality in Logistics, 13.

10. "About Augmented Reality and ARKit." N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2018.

11. Anastasiia Bobeshko. "Object Recognition in Augmented Reality." Virtual Reality Pop. N.p., 07 Apr. 2017. Web. 12 May 2018.

12. Glockner et. al, 14.

13. Meredith Tenhoor, "Decree, Design, Exhibit, Consume: Making Modern Markets in France, 1953-1979," Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 2012: 216

14. Ibid., 218

15. Clara Lu. "How Does IKEA's Inventory Management Supply Chain Strategy Really Work? - Supply Chain 24/7." Supply Chain 247. N.p., 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 May 2018.

16. Ibid.

17. Larkin, Brian. "The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure." The Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 333

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., 334.

20. "UPS We Love Logistics Commercial." YouTube. N.p., 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2018.