Compared to some, there's no denying that the furniture industry seems to be one of the most stagnant. While styles have subtly shifted over time in tune with the gentle ebb and flow of fashion, in many ways our furniture hasn't changed much at all for centuries. Until recently, furniture even seemed relatively untouched by the tech boom (with the exception of how things are manufactured), but finally, now, the lines between "tech" and "furniture" are gradually starting to blur as our homes begin to adapt to better suit our needs and our evolving lifestyles.
"Some people have a vision of the future home with tech everywhere—all buttons and flashing lights," says Dominic Harrison, a director at Foresight Factory, a consumer analytics company, specializing in trends. "In fact, we think the future will look a lot more like the past. The future we're facing is one where domestic spaces are incredibly technologically sophisticated and smart but where technology plays more of a background role—it only demands our attention when it's really required and for no longer than is necessary."
Recent furniture designs hint at this shift towards invisible technology. Fonesalesman has developed a range of sleek, minimalist "Furniqi" side tables with wireless charging devices concealed within them, while last year IKEA launched its new Home Smart collection of charging furniture. The brand's new 2017 range includes LED bulbs, lighting panels and doors which are operated via remote control.
Meanwhile, tech firms are starting to create devices that blend in to our homes seamlessly. For example, Samsung's new TV, The Frame, looks like a piece of framed art when turned off and has sensors that switch off the display when you leave the room.
"The future is one where mass customization is promised," says Harrison. "Thanks to new technology and the improvement of production methods like 3D-printing, you can create very personalized spaces."
Innovations such as Microsoft HoloLens (the world's first self-contained holographic computer that enables you to engage with digital content and interact with holograms in the world around you) could change the way we buy furniture forever.
"Soon you will be able to put on a Microsoft HoloLens headset and visualize a holographic piece of furniture in your actual space, then walk around it using your hands to stretch or shrink the size, or move it," explains Harrison.
Perhaps one day we'll even be able to touch and "feel" textures and fabrics at home, too, thanks to recent innovations in the world of Haptic Feedback, the area dedicated to improving the sense of touch via interfaces. For example, Disney's REVEL wearable tactile technology (check out a video on it here) means that when you touch the surface of an object, small electrical signals can recreate the feel of a particular surface, such as animal fur or human skin. "This kind of technology could impact what wood you choose for your table, or what pile you choose for your carpet," says Harrison. "Instead of visiting a showroom and then ordering online as we often do now, we'll be able to explore furniture in the comfort of our own homes."
Mass personalization is whirring into action already, with apps such as Tylko, which let you customize designer furniture to suit your specific needs and space.
Recent advances in 3D-printing hint at a future where personalization will become the norm, too. The latest experiments include the new Voxel 1.0 chair by designers Manuel Jiménez Garcia and Gilles Retsin and a team at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, which is made using new software that creates objects using one continuous line of material, for better efficiency and complex, web-like structures.
Sustainable, Multi-Functional, Efficient
As the climate changes, the furniture of the future will have to be sustainable, multi-functional and efficient and today's top designers are already starting to explore these three areas, paving the way for future developments.
British designer Max Lamb's new Solid Textile Board benches for Really (part-owned by Kvadrat) respond to the urgent global issue of waste as the boards are made of recycled waste textiles and designed "with a circular economy in mind".
Benjamin Hubert of Layer has created the Tent Chair, a ground-breaking piece of furniture that's the result of 20 prototypes and two years of research and is billed as "one of the most advanced pieces of upholstery constructed to date". Thanks to cutting-edge digital knitting technology, the upholstery is knitted in a single, seamless piece comprising 50,000 meters of recyclable nylon, which slots neatly on to a lightweight steel frame, held in place by tensioned sailing rope.
Interactive Features and Artificial Intelligence
"We think that clean sleeping is the new clean eating," says Harrison. "Anything that supports sound sleep will become more popular, which goes in tandem with people monitoring their sleep patterns using apps. Two thirds of consumers globally tell us that getting enough sleep is the route to healthy living."
Smart interactive beds are already appearing on the horizon. The Balluga bed (which launched on crowd-funding site Kickstarter last year) has an air suspension system that monitors the pressure your body places on different zones of the mattress, adjustable firmness for each side of the bed, a climate control system with streams of air providing independent temperature control for each side, a vibro-massage system, motion-activated LED ambient lighting for when you need to get up in the dark, a built-in sleep-monitoring sensor and even an anti-snoring setting, which has a sound sensor and air suspension to raise or lower your pillow until your snoring stops. All these features can be controlled via an app on your smart phone or tablet.
In the future, intelligent, interactive furniture—as well as every aspect of the home environment—is likely to be controlled by a "Smart Home Assistant", such as Amazon's Alexa Smart Home system or Google Home hub.
"Absolutely, this is going to happen," says Harrison. "We'll have an Artificial Intelligence with a personality and a presence in our homes that gets ever smarter, ever more intelligent, ever more in tune with our routines and ever more aware of our needs, from our food requirements to our heating preferences—this is the future we're walking into."