It will change everything from first design and purchases to furnishings. But how far-reaching is the technology and when will it become the norm?
At a café in Tokyo’s chic Shibuyu district, Kate settles down to make some home improvements. She orders a cappuccino, straps on a pair of virtual reality goggles and shuts herself off from the outside world.
Meanwhile, her husband Mike, on a business trip in Edinburgh, sits in his hotel room wearing a similar pair of goggles. The couple move through the property together, discussing options for kitchen worktops, dining room tables and curtains for the master bedroom.
Welcome to the future, where, from anywhere in the world, you can immerse yourself in a real place, and virtually walk through and redesign your surroundings with family and friends.
Although the scenario seems sci-fi, this technology already exists. While still in the early stages, it is about to change everything, according to those in the know.
“I think we are in an age where we have to go and see and touch something,” says Malcolm Fitzgerald, chief product and technology officer at PropertyGuru Group, one of Asia’s most prominent online property media companies turned tech industry leader. “But our kids are in a different age, and their kids are in a different age, and when my kids’ kids grow up, virtual reality and augmented reality will be scaled across the world. Everyone will have a device. Everyone will have goggles; we’ll all be in an augmented or virtual world.”
Previously the realm of tech enthusiasts, video gamers, and the porn industry, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are nudging their way into the business world and our daily lives in a big way.
Nowhere is this change more exciting than in real estate, with pioneering property companies adopting the technology and offering customers futuristic home viewings. But this technology is not just a sop to the vagaries of fashion. VR and AR are serious tools, that are influencing the way properties are conceptualised, built, maintained and decorated.
By wearing special VR goggles, users are visually transported to a world akin to the holodeck in “Star Trek,” where you can see and interact with simulated surroundings.
In contrast, AR is not immersive. It’s merely additional content layered on top of the real world in certain locations. This technology has gone mainstream courtesy of gaming phenomenon Pokémon GO.
But how do the two combine to make a real estate sales and marketing dream team? Fitzgerald explains that in the future the real estate tech world will use a mixed reality of both VR and AR.
“What we’re looking to do is to push that boundary into VR so customers can not just view their property, but virtually redesign it in one seamless experience,” he says.
Over the next few years, VR viewings will eliminate the need for investors to personally visit a property they intend to buy. They can look around an apartment in London or New York from the comfort of their living room in Singapore or Bangkok.
Friends and family members will also be able to tune into the same viewing, making it a shared experience. AR takes this to the next level, making it possible to rearrange the furniture, change the colour of the fabric, and even select furnishings from e-commerce sites to see what it would look like in the room.
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This technology will also have benefits before the customer even gets involved.
Architects and developers can adapt designs in real time, without sending annotated PDF’s back and forth and losing days of production, says Warren Mackenzie, creative director of multi-disciplinary tech agency Untitled Project.
When the customer does enter the frame, VR allows them to step into the mind of the designer and be fully immersed in the creation process.
“It’s instant and it’s very real,” he says. “This new intimate connection between customer and product will be something people come to expect, and anybody in the business of making things will be heavily reliant on VR/AR as part of the review process.”
Not only that, but developers can now approach a company like Untitled Project with the blueprints or even sketches of a property yet to be built, and create a virtual experience from the plans. This will then allow prospective tenants or investors to experience being inside the property before the first bricks have even been laid.
While excitement for VR is growing, actual property sales from virtual viewings will not happen overnight.
“You’re not making an investment just based on a virtual decision. I think the process helps to make your property search much more efficient,” Jan Thiel, creative director of Germany-based virtual reality agency, A4VR, says, explaining that with VR, you have much richer material from which to decide whether you like what a real estate agent has to offer.
He also suggests that consumers will trust a virtual depiction of a property more so than standard photographs, as real estate agents are commonly criticised, for instance, for using deceptive wide lens photography to make rooms appear larger.
“Faking a shot in the 360, is possible but it’s a lot more difficult.” Besides, Thiel adds, “the power of VR is to show the client what is really there.”
Back in the Shibuyu café of the near future, Kate puts the finishing touches to the bathroom décor, although she still looks slightly out of place. Other customers are glued to the screens of the latest iPhone.
But just as the smart phone revolutionised the tech market a decade ago, VR is about to go massive over the next 10 years. Tomorrow’s world will be seen through very different eyes – or goggles.
The full version of this article appeared in Property Report, issue 138.