It’s Saturday night in London, and I’m shopping in Dublin, thanks to a virtual reality headset.
Temporarily forgetting that she is sitting next to me, I shout to my wife: “I’m in the children’s room.”
We cannot go alone to the Republic of Ireland to do that. Travelers from Britain have to restrict their movements for a fortnight, so stepping back and forth is off the charts.
But I can take several steps into a virtual seaside apartment in Dublin’s Dún Laoghaire while residing in our south London home.
The circles appear on the floor of the Dublin apartment and, using the hand controls, I can glide between them and explore.
Standing in each circle, I can look up, down, as I prefer. It’s engaging and I feel like I’m there, even if moving around feels a bit like using Google Street View.
Welcome to house shopping in the coronavirus era.
It’s not for everyone as house hunters have to use their own headphones at the moment.
But Giles Milner, marketing director at Chestertons real estate agent, says he will sometimes send headsets to buyers for newly built properties if a development has multiple nearly identical apartments with some still under construction.
“Developers often sell off-plan and it’s hard to sell a product on just a 2D floor plan,” he says. “So developers these days have budgets for virtual tours right from the start.”
Once you have a headset, it’s a fairly simple process to find a virtual property on the real estate agent’s website, using a hand controller to operate a virtual keyboard.
It’s still a fairly limited option, currently only 8% of Zoopla’s listings have an option for a virtual tour.
But Zoopla says there was a surge of activity during the first month of the lockdown, when virtual reality (VR) views of the newly built properties tripled.
Much of the technology has been around for three to four years, but there haven’t been many incentives to use it, according to Miles Shipside, co-founder of Rightmove, an FTSE 100 company and popular UK home rental and sales website.
But during the lockdown, buyers were unable to visit the properties, which gave the technology a big boost.
Estate agents “would take an hour of your time, drive around and show you five twin beds in Putney, but now we wouldn’t,” says Guy Gittins, Chestertons CEO.
More technology for business
Virtual reality offers more detail than traditional photos on a website. It also saves real estate agents time and is safer for everyone: “The last thing you want is for your staff members to be affected by Covid-19,” Shipside says.
The growing adoption of VR visualization also makes life easier for customers traveling internationally, when traveling back and forth is difficult.
Mainland Chinese buyers looking for homes in Singapore must observe the country’s strict two-week quarantine on nearly all arrivals.
So it makes sense to treat buying a home “just like online shopping,” says Christopher Wang, founder of Imme VR, a Singapore-based virtual reality real estate company.
A large company in proprietary VR technology, Silicon Valley’s Matterport, started in 2011 with a motion and depth sensor from Microsoft’s Xbox.
“He would sit on your television and follow your movements, allowing you to play tennis without a controller in hand,” says managing director RJ Pittman.
He says Matterport then reengineered this into a camera that “for all intents and purposes could see in 3D, collect spatial data and create a digital twin of physical spaces.”
Offering these digital twins as virtual walkthroughs for the real estate business has quickly emerged as the leading commercial use of the technology.
“We believe the industry needs updating,” adds Pittman.
The most recent development allows users to create virtual twins of their property using a smartphone, instead of an expensive 3D camera.
In May, earlier than expected due to the coronavirus, they launched Matterport for iPhone.
Artificial intelligence (AI) merges smartphone photographs into a complete VR model, using as training data “the millions of buildings the system has already scanned, looking back and learning from all previous digital twins it has created.”
Mr. Pittman says this allows the AI to “bypass a property and build the model, predicting the 3D geometry.”
Other software, such as Unreal Engine, originally written for video games, allow immersive models to mimic light at different seasons and times of the day.
It means you can stand in your garden in any season and see if your garden is about to get moldy.
It helps that VR headsets are increasingly popular during the coronavirus outbreak.
Sales of standalone headsets are expected to increase by 22.5% in 2020 to 2.8 million globally, says International Data Corporation, a US market research firm based in Massachusetts.
High-end devices from companies like Oculus (bought by Facebook in 2014), Samsung, HTC and Sony cost around £ 499 in the UK and $ 499 in the US, for a 128 gigabyte Oculus Quest.
At the other end of the market, Google Cardboard kits, which cost around $ 5, invent a folded cardboard headset, smartphone, plain lenses, and fasteners.
Meanwhile, 5G networks will allow headsets to move computing tasks from the device to the cloud and lose weight, says Wang.
“Once they become like glasses, I think they will go mainstream,” he says.
You can also shoot virtual models using a computer or smartphone screen.
An imminent use of all of this technology is allowing potential sellers to find their property’s value without real estate agents visiting.
Another will allow prospective buyers to see a property “as if their furniture is already installed in the house,” says Pittman.
Scanning your home and then identifying furniture and other home content isn’t a difficult task for AI, it adds.
Having this record of the contents of your property and their condition is “especially useful if you have to file a claim for something stolen, or damage from fire or flood.”
Another use will be to get quotes from builders.
Instead of contractors measuring and taking photos, walking away and back with bids, a digital twin could instead allow multiple contractors to bid for the job, empowering the homeowner.
Chestertons’ Mr. Gittins predicts that real estate agents could “change forever from this point.”
And maybe not just buying and selling properties, but also securing them and getting into builders.