How Virtual Reality is Augmenting Realty

In the span of 30 years, virtual reality has transformed from a science-fiction curio to a growing asset for the real estate industry. And some of the biggest changes in the field are now becoming commercially viable, thanks to the spread of affordable consumer hardware, like 360-degree cameras, and the ubiquity of powerful smartphones and devices.

There has never been a more likely moment for virtual and augmented reality to move beyond showroom demonstrations, not just in the increasingly digital buying and selling process, but also in design and construction, which remain stubbornly analog. Just ask the contractor lugging rolls of paper plans to construction sites.

To be sure, the technology is still something to behold, but the following examples aspire to something beyond the gee-whiz factor. Namely: How do you monetize this?

On a recent tour of 9 DeKalb Avenue, the future site of a 1,066-foot residential tower, soon to be the tallest in Brooklyn, construction workers were still laying the foundation.

Then an associate with SHoP, the architecture firm in charge of design, pointed an iPad toward the hole in the ground and dropped in a true-to-life rendering of the 74-story skyscraper. Using the iPad like a viewfinder, he was able to track the tower from base to neck-craning spire, showing how the building will relate to its neighbors.

“We can visualize problems that would not be able to be seen from a computer screen,” said Adam Chernick, as he tapped on individual panels of another tower rendering to receive live updates on the materials used, construction status and dimensions. Mr. Chernick, the research and development lead for A.R. and V.R. with SHoP, has been working closely with the designers on the augmented reality app.

The rendering is not merely a fancy 3D illustration, which could have been produced years ago, but a dynamic stand-in for what has or hasn’t been completed on site, Mr. Chernick said. It marries two- and three-dimensional design data so that a contractor can peer through the virtual facade and determine where plumbing should be installed, whether the electrician has left adequate space for ventilation ducts or if columns are correctly aligned.

“One of the challenges that we face industrywide is communication,” said Michael Jones, a project director with JDS Development Group, the developer. “Having that information get down all the way to the guy with the tool in his hand in the snow — it’s a difficult game of telephone,” he added, noting that this app should prevent some on-site mistakes, avoiding the need for expensive remedies.

The technology is made possible by the use of the Unity engine, a software platform created in 2005 by the San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, primarily for the video-game industry. Today it is used in half of all mobile games, the company said, including the massively popular augmented-reality game Pokemon Go. In 2018, the company began tailoring its tool set for architecture and design clients.

In the next few years, “I think we’ll see pervasive use of real-time 3D in the building industry,” said Tony Parisi, the company’s global head of A.R. and V.R. “Think about what you can save on re-dos alone” — which could translate to more investment in design and materials.

The software will also make it possible to build more difficult designs, said Gregg Pasquarelli, a partner with SHoP, pointing to the complicated hexagonal geometry of the tower.

So far, the real-world savings are hard to estimate. The on-site crew is not yet using the software, relying instead on about 1,200 pages of 3-by-4-foot paper schematics mandated by the buildings department, said Foteinos Soulos, a senior associate with SHoP. But the construction workers will get their hands on the app soon and will build the tower using the software, he said; construction is expected to be completed in late 2021.

“As the building goes up,” Mr. Soulos said, “the app is going to get better.”

The use of 3D virtual tours in real estate is not new, but until recently it was too expensive for most of the market. Now Matterport, a tech company founded in the Bay Area in 2011, is preparing to make its spatial-capture software available to a much larger audience.

The company entered the nascent virtual reality field with a proprietary device now called the Pro2, a tripod-affixed camera that takes 16 photographs per rotation, creating a 3D composite of a room. The images are stitched together to create a virtual replica of a space and can be viewed from a number of devices, including 3D headsets like the Oculus Rift.

But that camera still costs about $3,400 (down from $5,000), limiting its mass appeal. In early 2019, thanks to years of improvements to its algorithm, the company announced that its software was compatible with off-the-shelf, 360-degree cameras that can be bought for around $300, a tenth of the price. Capturing a 1,500-square-foot apartment takes about 15 minutes with an off-the-shelf camera, said R.J. Pittman, the company’s chief executive.

“The biggest growth has been in residential real estate,” Mr. Pittman said, and in Airbnb short-term rentals.

Early next year, the company will support the use of smartphones to create the 3D tours, with monthly subscriptions starting at $9.95 to create and host the tours on its website.

With the growth of so-called iBuying — the electronic sale of real estate that is often sight-unseen and completed online — more buyers and sellers may embrace the virtual house tour, said Mr. Pittman, whose tenure as chief product officer at eBay several years ago left an impression.

If someone is willing to spend millions of dollars bidding on eBay, he said, “then a $1 million home surely can be a commonplace purchase on the internet.”

The technology has reached the point where the appeal of the virtual can surpass that of the real, presenting other quandaries.

The 3D visualization company, roOomy, which was founded in Amsterdam in 2010 and entered the American real estate market about five years ago, can take photographs or 3D composites from a company like Matterport and fill the space with lifelike furniture and staging.

Looking to sell, but your living room is crammed with tchotchkes?

“We can digitally remove the clutter,” said Pieter Aarts, a founder and the chief executive at roOomy, and replace it with realistic renderings of high-end furniture from brands like Perigold, one of the company’s retail partners. (And lead prospective buyers to purchase those furnishings.)

The company recently partnered with the luxury brokerage Sotheby’s International Realty and the developer Toll Brothers to virtually furnish real and under-construction apartments, wooing prospective buyers with virtually styled looks.

“We want to give the consumer enough visual information to put in an offer without ever seeing the home,” said John Passerini, the global vice president of interactive marketing for Sotheby’s International Realty. Sotheby’s has begun using the Magic Leap headset, a “mixed reality” device, to allow house hunters to walk through a virtually rendered space.

The price to virtually stage a room now runs from $49 to $109, half of what it cost five years ago, Mr. Aarts said. The process remains labor intensive, involving several decisions about how to light the room and arrange the layout, and it can take up to three days to complete a commission, but thanks to the company’s “render farm” in Chengdu, China, where it exports much of the process, the turnaround is usually closer to one day, he said.

But has the pendulum swung too far in the virtual direction?

“That actually is the biggest problem now,” said Amir Karimpour, a lecturer at Yale Architecture, about the state of virtual reality. “Everything is too perfect.”

And that can shatter the illusion.

Mr. Karimpour, a founder of Alden Studios, a visual effects company in Brooklyn, recently rendered a Manhattan townhouse that was gut-renovated by Drew Lang of Lang Architecture. (While the renovation was finished, the architect preferred renderings to the real thing, because it gave him the chance to decorate the space to his own taste.)

Using skills derived from the film industry, he added smudges to the walls, wrinkles to bedsheets and dust to the air, resisting the urge to use implausibly perfect lighting and camera angles. It took about six weeks to create a set of 15 images of the renovated townhouse.

Mr. Karimpour’s next project is another homage to the silver screen: He plans to record Mr. Lang in front of a green screen and put him in the virtual townhouse. Imagine the possibility of placing a potential buyer into a virtual living room, he suggested.

“Everything I’m saying is digital,” Mr. Karimpour said, musing about the differences between the virtual townhouse and the real one. “There is nothing real.”

Then he stopped himself. “That sounds apocalyptic.”

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