Imagine you’re traveling to a country where you don’t understand the language. You step out of the airport and the glasses you’re wearing directs you to the nearest available cab. On the way to your hotel you see buildings, but they’re not just buildings anymore – you see information about the buildings – you see what the place is called, you see the shops, restaurants and their reviews inside the buildings. You get a call and without lifting your phone you have a complete video conversation with your friend through your smart glasses. You step out of the car and the glasses direct you to the concierge of your hotel, right up to the room you’ve booked. This is not a day taken from a science fiction novel – this is a day that could technically be possible TODAY. This is the world of immersive technology.
The vision described here was promoted by Microsoft in one of its Productivity Future Vision videos in 2011. At the time, given the rapid pace of technological development, it seemed to be a vision of a future close at hand. So why aren’t we already living in this future?
Gartner Hype Cycle
Applications of virtual reality (VR) started as early as the 1960s, used at the time for pilot simulations and training. Since then its profile has risen and fallen in the public consciousness. One of the best ways to assess the maturity of technology trends is through The Gartner Hype Cycle. The Gartner Hype Cycle operates as a maturity curve of sorts, with some technologies peaking at “inflated expectations” only to drop off the curve at the “trough of disillusionment”, while others that survive past this become a viable technology that stabilizes as productive tool in society.
Augmented reality (AR) and VR have both been on the curve for some time now, seeing both peak and trough in the last few years. Nevertheless, both now seem to be generating enough interest in the enterprise and commercial world to become a useful product. And as seen in the most recent rendering of the Hype Cycle, as of July 2018, Augmented & Mixed Reality are leading the race in becoming mainstream solutions, with another 5 to 10 years before they reach the “plateau of productivity”. It seems that all industries should now start to look at how they can leverage VR and AR technologies, including real estate.
Augmented vs Virtual vs Mixed Reality – What’s the Difference?
It is a common misconception that all forms of technology-enabled reality can be classified as “virtual”. In fact, there are essentially three forms of immersive technologies that businesses can leverage:
Virtual Reality is fully immersive. It’s an entirely digital environment that you can only experience through a VR Head Mounted Display (HMD) like HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, with the addition of sound and physical stimulation as additions to the experience. You can also add controllers to VR that allow you to interact with objects in the virtual world.
Augmented Reality overlays digital information over your real-world environment. It requires you to view your surroundings through a lens of some sort, including mobile phones. These lenses project digital information (images, videos, even interactive data) that sit over what you are viewing within your environment. The best-known application of AR is the game Pokémon Go, where you attempt to catch virtual Pokémon while you explore your real-world surroundings through your mobile phone camera.
Mixed Reality combines both AR and VR by allowing augmented reality objects to be anchored to and interact with your surroundings. So the Pokémon that was a free floating object in the AR example could now be hiding behind a tree that sits in the real world – effectively playing off depth perception with objects in the physical environment.
In the business world, it would make sense to evaluate each option before jumping headlong into a full virtual reality application.
Immersive Technology in Industry: Where are we today?
The most well-known application in industry today is gaming. Given its easy access to masses, it was one of the first industries to embrace it and has now matured to a point where gaming has become synonymous with AR/VR. However multiple other industries have also started to leverage the benefits proposed by realities outside of our physical world.
Tourism, healthcare, automotive and education have all found valuable use cases aiming to create a unique personalized experience for both customers and employees alike. From product demonstrations of cars, shoes and apparel through VR, to training healthcare and technical professionals, immersive technologies are finding reliable, scalable applications in business and industry. Thomas Cook, partnering with Samsung Gear VR, was able to transform their marketing approach through realistic views of holiday locations in VR, delivering a 40 percent return on investment within the first three months.
The benefits are self-evident. Gartner predicts that by 2019, immersive technology solutions will be evaluated and adopted by 20% of large-enterprise businesses. This is supported by increasing availability and access to quality devices, tools and systems. Performance of VR Head Mounted Devices (HMDs) has improved significantly in the last few years, with devices becoming less bulky and providing higher quality experiences. Still in its infancy compared to other wearable devices, HMDs are expected to evolve quickly, with 67 million devices expected to be sold in 2021.
Where does the real estate industry stand?
Traditionally, the real estate industry has been criticized as a slow adopter of automation and innovation. However, we’re now starting to see the market wake up to the opportunities emerging technology can provide. Proptech is the buzzword for the day and here’s the good news – amongst all the emerging technologies that could apply to real estate, immersive reality has probably the largest and most readily available set of use cases at the moment.
This is mostly because it is all about the “experience”. Unlike most other technologies today, VR/AR has the ability to touch the very core of customer engagement and effect retention – it is felt, more than understood, leaving a lasting impact on the consumer. This could have a transformative impact on the property industry where spaces have to be experienced to be valued. In a 2016 study by Goldman Sachs, it was estimated that real estate could potentially contribute $2.6bn in value towards immersive technology by 2025. And these are conservative estimates in a study of only 4 major global markets. The fact is that almost every part of the real estate lifecycle has a potential application available. These include:
Virtual Property Showcase
The selection of property for buying/leasing is a very physical and time-consuming affair. This can be completely revolutionized by allowing a client to complete multiple property tours without stepping out of their office or home. VR Headsets are critical in ensuring a realistic experience, allowing for different levels of engagements including pre-recorded guided tours and interactive walk-throughs, allowing a user to interact with the virtual surrounding.
VR Assisted Property Design
This is currently one of the fastest advancing use cases for VR, wherein architects and space designers can design spaces completely within the VR environment. The technology empowers them to move and place objects within a space without having to run back to the 3D design drawing board every time. Designs that typically take hours to create, could now be accomplished in minutes.
The cost of setting up fully staged properties can become a significantly high portion of property developers marketing budget. This can be entirely circumnavigated by rendering the property in a virtual space with 3D models of real furnishings available in the market. This can not only greatly reduce costs spent on marketing, but also allow for quick changes of catalog items in furnishing requested by the customer, with real-time changes in the virtual space. AR can also be laid over property brochures and posters where static images can come alive with videos and messages, using just a mobile phone camera.
A renewable energy company was recently able to prove the transformative power of virtual reality. During the experiment they equipped an employee with a VR headset and then trained them on wiring instructions. The result was that they were able to wire a wind turbine 34% faster than an employee using traditional paper based training. This can be translated to facilities maintenance as well, with AR assisting critical equipment handlers to understand and manage components.
With the e-commerce market ever-growing, it only makes sense that it would make inroads to immersive technologies as well. Property buyers could take a 3D tour of their yet to be completed space and superimpose catalog furnishing items from an online marketplace, instantly seeing the cost of their selections. Hit the purchase button and the design team is informed of the changes and can deliver accordingly, while the buyer is given the choice to style the space their way.
Challenges and Future Outlook
While the outlook is bright for immersive technologies, it’s important we don’t become guilty of overhyping the promise too soon. According to Gartner we’re at least 5 to 10 years away from mainstream application of VR/AR in business. Since the success of this technology is all about enhanced user experience, organizations would have to address a couple of key challenges to enable faster maturity:
- Immersive technology hardware. It needs to be easily available and accessible, with multiple cost ranges and features to allow for mass adoption.
- Better design software. We don’t want users to deal with nausea and eye strain, some of the common issues reported with current level of designs and hardware.
However, given the level of investments being made by software giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft in this area, the future looks promising. Indeed, 2017 saw AR/VR startups generate a record breaking $3 billion in investments.
The best organizations can do is continue to iteratively engage in pilot AR/VR projects. This would provide opportunities for use case development and encourage growth of the technology to a productized stage. With the foray into the smartphone and tablet market to facilitate immersive experiences (through Google and Apple’s software development kits ARCore and ARKit) mass exposure to this technology will continue to increase. In this way, industries can start creating valuable case studies for implementation as the technology hits the mainstream.