The Problems and Solutions of Virtual Tours in Real Estate
Before you ask: No, my virtual tour system will not allow you to smell the property. I get that question all the time. I think it’s mostly a knee-jerk reaction to see just how far technology can go, but maybe people really do purchase homes based on scent. And if they do, they’re probably not going to smell the bones of the house until they move in.
In 2005, my little sister went away to college and my parents decided to buy a new house. They settled on a beautiful single-family home in the suburbs of Phoenix, just far enough out of town to have an “open-sky, cowboy feel.” That cowboy feel, it turned out, was due to nearby cow pastures, which were largely undetectable most of the time. For some reason (cowpokes, help me out here), at sunrise and sunset the fragrance of manure blanketed the town. If only they had an olfactory-enhanced virtual tour system, I think to myself. Instead, their real estate agent had conveniently brought them to the property over lunchtime, and their fate was sealed.
It’s true that virtual tours won’t reveal all the secrets a property may hold—but neither will in-person tours. Right now, in 2021, many different companies are taking many different approaches to virtual tours. Each one solves some of the inconveniences of in-person tours, often replacing them with a few alternate drawbacks. Generally speaking, virtual tours can improve on in-person tours in four major areas.
Before a traditional tour can start, a potential buyer must schedule a time to meet with an agent. This imposes a sort of time limit on the experience, pressuring clients to come to a decision but wasting time if they decide too quickly. Additionally, the logistics and expectations that come with this chaperoned experience may deter clients from touring more than one or two properties.
To add to the complexity of scheduling with an agent, many properties have their own availability issues. Properties with existing tenants, for example, may have very limited touring hours. Others may be undergoing construction or renovation to the extent that they are completely unavailable to potential clients.
Clients looking to buy a property in a different city may simply be unable to attend an in-person tour. Distances that seem trivial to some may deter others with transportation or mobility issues. Even clients who are willing and able to travel may limit their searches to two or three properties to mitigate the collateral stress of navigating across town.
The potential safety benefits of virtual tours cannot be overstated, especially during a pandemic, when any in-person activity comes with some risk.
Now let’s examine some of the technology-driven solutions that address these issues.
In the pandemic era, many aspects of social interaction have moved to video chat. Some real estate agents are responding to safety concerns by leading live virtual tours for their clients. Clients can call in from their homes, mitigating safety concerns and proximity issues, while an agent walks around, showing off the property and responding to questions. This solution is largely a response to COVID-19 and does not address scheduling and availability issues. Additionally, the client does not get the full experience of being on the property. However, this is still a viable solution, even in a post-COVID world, for homebuyers looking to purchase in other cities or countries.
Alternately, clients can travel to a property and take a tour alongside a telepresence robot. These robots are essentially video chat devices (often an iPad on a stand) that can be driven around by the remote user, in this case a real estate agent. This solution most closely replicates the traditional tour experience, and the client gets to experience the real location. As such, it maintains most of the drawbacks of an in-person tour, addressing only the (very important) safety concerns.
One could argue that the earliest form of a virtual tour was looking at photos. Traditionally, videos offered little merit over photos, as videos are harder to navigate, tend to have lower image quality, and use an inordinate amount of time transitioning between true points of interest. The advent of 360° video in virtual reality could bring video tours back into the limelight, though, as the added sense of presence can feel like a true walkthrough.
Unfortunately, most 360° video tours are extremely lackluster. Capturing a great 360° video is no small feat. High-resolution 360° images take up a huge amount of space, compounded by the fact that immersive videos replicate 3D depth by using two images per frame. The cameras that can achieve this professional-grade video have professional-level price tags. High-definition 360° video contains too much data to transfer in real time over most modern high-speed internet connections, so clients will need to download the whole file to a local drive before they can watch it. After all that, anyone with a VR headset can experience an immersive, realistic walkthrough of the property—but all the effort will have been wasted on anyone watching the video on a phone.
Small wonder, then, that current 360° video tours tend to be blurry, confusing excursions.
Navigable 360° Photo Tours
360° video tech isn’t quite viable yet, but 360° photos are ready for prime time. These handy snapshots of a property can translate quite well to non-VR devices. With the help of a rudimentary 3D model, clients can jump from photo to photo to guide their own tour. The meat of the tours are static photos from set locations, but the presentation and accessibility from any device make for a smooth experience that has become wildly popular.
Creating these tours has become a market in itself. Matterport is the undisputed leader in the field, with custom camera hardware and an established product delivery pipeline, though other companies are vying for a piece of the pie with innovations of their own. A company called GeoCV offers similar services with less restrictive licensing. Cupix adds a few innovative bells and whistles, such as embedded navigation aids and video screens. Asteroom sacrifices some of the detail found in competitors’ 3D navigation models in exchange for a simpler (and potentially cheaper) workflow. Zillow has thrown their hat into the ring, hoping a little brand recognition will cover the gaps as they build up to feature parity with their competitors.
Full Virtual Models
Panoramic photos saturate the immersive potential of smartphones but only scratch the surface of the realism that a VR headset can afford. Jumping between photos on a tablet screen may be the gold standard for many people today, but it pales in comparison to genuinely walking around a full replica of a property. Additionally, VR solutions allow for social interactions in the space in meaningful ways beyond a tangential video chat.
Creating optimized and accessible virtual models is easier said than done, and the results that make for a powerful experience when viewed in VR will be largely lost on users accessing the content from a phone or tablet. At PROJETO, we believe the value of this kind of virtual tour well outweighs the effort, but it’s a risk that not every company wants to (or should) take.
No virtual tour can reveal all the secrets of a property. Showing a home is an art, and finding a home is a journey. Technology can make the process easier, faster, and safer. Let us know if you have thoughts about technologies that have helped you buy or sell a home, things that worked and things that didn’t. We’re not done innovating.
About the Author: Joel Garcia is the Chief Information Officer and Co-Founder of PROJETO, LLC, based out of Washington, DC He has been creating virtual reality software and developing technological solutions since 2017, an uncanny alignment of his construction and coding backgrounds.