GrokStyle’s visual search tech makes it into IKEA’s Place AR app

GrokStyle’s simple concept of “point your camera at a chair (or lamp, or table…) and find others like it for sale” attracted $2 million in funding last year, and the company has been putting that cash to work. And remarkably for a company trying to break into the home furnishing market, it landed furniture goliath IKEA as its first real customer; GrokStyle’s point-and-search functionality is being added to the IKEA Place AR app.

What GrokStyle does, in case you don’t remember, is identify any piece of furniture your camera can see — in your house, at a store, in a catalog — and immediately return similar pieces or even the exact one, with links to buy them.

I remember being skeptical last year that the product could possibly work as well as they said it did. But a demo shut my mouth real quick. The growing team is led by Sean Bell and Kavita Bala, who spun GrokStyle out of their work on computer vision at Cornell University — and it’s clear they know what they’re doing.

GrokStyle’s tech in action grabbing an image from a catalog.

IKEA thought so as well. In December, Bell and Bala got a chance to present it to Michael Valdsgaard, IKEA’s “Leader of Digital Transformation.” He loved it.

“He just said, ‘OK, this needs to be in the next release,'” recalled Bell, “and in 3 months we were able to turn it around for them.”

It seemed as clear to Valdsgaard as it is to GrokStyle that the advent of mixed reality in all its forms necessitates a fundamentally different kind of search. If information is to be presented and mixed visually, why shouldn’t you be able to find and browse things the same way?

“To make AR work, that’s where you really need tech like visual search,” said Bala. “It lets you find things, cool designs and furniture, all in situ and visualize it in place.”

What’s more, she noted, images and video are just how people communicate and record things now. “People take pictures of absolutely everything. If you want to remember someone’s phone number, sometimes you just take a picture of it. That’s the world we’re living in now.”

Being able to search among a visual record is a powerful tool, and one few companies have unlocked in any kind of powerful way. GrokStyle could very easily have overshot to begin with and tried to offer consumers an app that categorizes and searches among your photos and others, but that way lies great cost and questionable utility.

I originally thought that furniture was a rather prosaic and narrow field in which to deploy their obviously effective tech, but in fact it was a very wise choice. IKEA is a big get, but in the long term it’s the narrow end of a wedge.

“We’re also building recommendation systems and business intelligence tools,” Bala said. “Once you see what people are searching for, there are tons of opportunities.”

Imagine, for example, someone using GrokStyle’s tech while shopping at Crate and Barrel. They scan an item, see how it would look in their living room, then see a similar but slightly cheaper one available from a competitor. This is a critical moment in retail: the moment when Crate and Barrel and this other retailer compete for the consumer’s attention and money. Being at the center of that is a propitious position.

For now the plan is to execute on IKEA and get the knowledge out there that this exists and works well enough to be adopted by a major retailer. “We’re inviting retailers to come talk to us, and as part of working with them we’re setting up pilots and things,” said Bell. APIs are also in the offing.

As a sort of cherry on top of all this, the company also recently secured another $750K in grants from the National Science Foundations. GrokStyle had received $225K as part of the Small Business Innovation Research program, and successfully competed for the other three-quarters of a million up for grabs in Phase II. That ought to keep the lights on for a while.