The best special effects are often the ones you never notice—which may make Ikea the most skillful special effects studio in the world. The Swedish furniture company has been aggressively ramping up its use of computer generated imagery in their catalogs. Ikea's first CG photo was a Bertil pinewood chair in 2006. By 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that 25% of their products were CG. Today, that figure has ballooned to 75%.
Yes, that means three out of four things you see in an Ikea catalog are fake. The fixtures. The furniture. The walls. The light. Why? It beats shipping endless pieces of prototype furniture halfway across the world for photo shoots.
CGSociety recently published a deep look at Ikea's in-house production studio, which is responsible for the shift, and it’s full of fascinating factoids. Ikea's bank of 25,000 fixture and furniture models are constructed virtually at 4K-by-4K pixels—which dwarfs what we think of as high definition—and textures are scanned in from their analog source then mapped to a virtual counterpart at 1:1 scale (rather than some compressed size). The result? So much detail that you can actually see each thread of a sofa.
In essence, Ikea is creating digital furniture at the real-world scale. The IT Manager spearheading the project, Martin Enthed, credits modern ray-tracing technology—which allows you to paint a scene in realistic, easy-to-control light—as the most convincing piece of the illusion. It's easy to see. Ikea's catalog lighting ranges from crisp to ethereal.
Ikea has made the shift to a majority-CG catalog in just eight years, and it seems that a decent chunk of that 25% holdout consists of creative set pieces that aren't part of Ikea's stock, though even some of that has been going digital, too. The company credits a cross-discipline approach to the quick transition. In the early days of CG at Ikea, the CG artists learned studio photography, and the photographers on staff learned 3-D rendering software. A sensitivity to real-world conditions grounds what could be cold, lifeless computer-based imagery.
In case you ever thought the world inside an Ikea catalog was too pristine to be true, well, now you have your proof.