emerging technologies

Virtual reality emerges in commercial sector

Office marketing tools of the future offer an immersive user experience from afar
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

Sun streams through the windows, stretching across a white-tiled lobby floor of an office building. Modern light fixtures descend from high ceilings, above slightly cushioned orange leather couches and abstract paintings. To the right, a floor-to-ceiling window provides a view of the outside, leafy trees and neighbouring towers. The interior space is vast, roomy enough to walk through, but at the moment doesn’t actually exist.

For such spaces to appear real before they are actualized is a tool the commercial real estate sector is slowly adopting. Virtual spaces such as the aforementioned lobby, a creation of B.C.-based visual effects company Vividus, may one day become a mainstream way for landlords, brokers and tenants to gain more confidence in an existing or future asset.

Terry McWhirter, principal at Vividus, notices some key drivers of this virtual reality technology. Locality is one. With many corporate headquarters situated far from new or developing buildings, companies want to be in a space before they lease or sell it, while having control on how a room is outfitted to their needs. At the same time, basic human nature offers competitive advantage.

“People are innately visual; our life works in 3D,” McWhirter says over the phone, from his office in Vancouver. “Most of the marketing tools out there right now are 2D drawings or a flat-floor plan, and it’s tough for average people to visualize how that looks in real life.”

But these virtual worlds, accessed through goggles, mobile devices, an IPad or a computer, give people the opportunity to see buildings in what McWhirter calls “a human way.” And feedback from clients who have used or are in a process of deploying virtual reality has been promising.

“What they tell me is that it gives people enough of an experience to make them interested in moving on to the next step of the sales process, and more easily,” McWhirter says.

Technology tested on commercial front

Colliers is one Vividus client. Hari Minhas, director of marketing and marketing intelligence for Colliers Vancouver, says the company is in the process of testing the technology with three or four major landlords and expects to launch into full production once the program runs smoothly. This includes promoting the technology to tenants in an actual listing.

“One problem in the marketplace is sometimes our clients cannot walk into a space and visualize a completely different layout,” he says. “In addition to that, when it’s a new building, they can’t visualize anything in particular.”

To use one test example, Minhas was able to showcase what an open layout would look like in an older building with traditional offices. “They understand how much room is in the boardroom and how big the office really is,” he says.

Users are able to feel the size of a room, thanks to a software called Unreal Engine or what McWhirter calls ‘the game-changer.” Besides fusing its background in architectural modelling to digital skills, the company applied the software, which allows for that immersive experience: the spatial sense of a room, the materials, textures, lighting and even the space between cubicles.

“The user decides where they want to go, moving within the space like a video game, looking at whatever they want,” adds McWhirter. “They have complete control.”

Armed with this sense of premeditated ownership, users can navigate the space at their leisure and tempo, moving through any rooms they choose. For those who need greater flexibility in envisioning different designs or times of day, all it takes is a click of a button. Minhaus adds the crux is really about providing “more comfort” to both landlords and tenants.

“It’s a good marriage between being able to help landlords really showcase the benefits of space as well as the tenants to really understand the space they will be acquiring,” he says.

Signals from the residential sector

At the moment, virtual reality tools in the industry are accelerating, more so on the residential side than on the commercial end. As Howard Steiss, principal and vice-president of marketing at Texor Homes in Burnaby, B.C., says, homeowners realize they’re making a big investment and need all the information they can get ahold of.

“Because of the interactive feeling you get when looking at the virtual tour of real estate, it has become one of the essential marketing tools for us in the residential development business,” he says. “Especially when most major real estate developments are not built out prior to marketing.”

Steiss says this has driven the company to pre-construct the development with life-like detail, which also encompasses the neighbourhood and demographic profiles of targeted markets.

For instance, virtual users immersed in a model home tour for Texor’s Clarke Townhomes development in B.C. can see the types of trees along the streetscape, a car with a kayak in tow parked near a children’s playground and interior details of the homes, such as reflections in mirrors around the house, the random way dress shirts hang in closets and the lighting beneath kitchen cabinets.

Details, says Steiss, help in the decision-making process and also give more leverage to those who will feel as if they have enough information to make a commitment and, consequently, snap up spaces before those who are less confident in a non-existent space.

For the commercial sector, Minhas says the impact of understanding what the space is going to feel like plays into what the company wants to do because more people are impacted by that space. Looking ahead, he says it’s only a matter of time before more companies adopt the technology.

“The cost is going to continue to be driven lower as it’s more adopted,” he says. “I think we’ll see a lot more of this in the marketplace.”

McWhirter adds the technology is only going to get better.

“It’s going to get to the point where this will be available in a lot of commercial centres in the next couple of years,” he says. “I don’t think it will be unheard of to see a lot of real estate and commercial operations offering this on a regular basis.”

Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability.

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