Web Site a Little Flat? Turn It Into a 3d Experience with 360 Technology

Virtual reality is becoming a reality for a growing number of real estate Web sites.

December 1, 1998

How would you like to be able to tell relocating prospects they can walk through some of your listings without getting on a plane? Or how would you like to hold an open house without having to bake cookies or evacuate the sellers?

Some practitioners are accomplishing those feats--and upping the ante at their Web sites--by adding photo-realistic panoramic virtual reality walk-throughs of properties.

"You only have to surf the Web a little to see that VR real estate sites are becoming pervasive," says David Stark, president of Madison, Wis.-based Stark Co., Realtors®. Over time the technology will improve and the cost will fall, making VR even more desirable as a marketing tool."

It's definitely an attention getter. Marty Kassowitz, a principal at Los Angeles-based View360 and a builder of panoramic VR worlds and experiences, says, "The reaction I usually get from a first-time user is "Wow! Cool! Oooo!"

No Numbers, Lots of Wows

The use of VR technology in the realty industry is still so new that no one has quantified its precise impact on sales in any comprehensive way. But encouraging anecdotes--the wow factor--are emerging. "Our first brokerage customer, Restaino, Bunbury & Associates, saw its sales volume jump 30 percent in the first year it used our services," says Nancy Zellmer, co-owner of Madison, Wis.-based Virtual Properties, a VR tour service provider.

The brokerage saw a similar increase in sales volume the following year, and salespeople reported that the tours gave them a substantial advantage in obtaining listings, she adds.

Ron Restaino, owner of Middleton, Wisconsin-based Restaino, Bunbury & Associates, agrees: "Our sales did jump, and we believe Virtual Properties played a significant part in that increase."

"Our traffic has increased more than 600 percent since the introduction of panoramic VR in June 1997," observes Christian Hicks, communications manager for Chicago-based Apartments.com, which is one of several sites developed by Classified Ventures and features a number of VR apartment tours.

Other practitioners, such as Zandra Frame, broker-owner of San Francisco-based Z Group, REALTORS®, are less concerned about precise figures and more focused on creating an image with panoramic VR. "Seventy-five percent of our clients are computer or tech people, so we wanted to do something in a medium that would appeal to them," she says. "And we do have people walking in and saying, 'I saw [your VR tour]on the Net.'" Mark Lomas, a broker for Tiburon, Calif.-based Frank, Howard, Allen Realty, agrees: "[VR] is really creating credibility for me."

Wild West of Pricing

Like many things high-tech, prices for panoramic VR technology--both the software and the consultants--are all over the map. Do-it-yourselfers, for example, can pick up a standard panoramic VR software package, such as Apple's QuickTime VR, which the company lists for about $395 at its site.

Similarly, some service provider quotes for a simple panoramic VR walk-through of a three-bedroom home are in the same ballpark. Virtual Properties says it charges $295 for a typical three-bedroom home; Realtour Online, a service provider based in San Rafael, Calif., quoted the same project at $400.

However, service providers can charge as much as $1,350 for a single house tour.

Some software systems can be pricey, too. If you opt for Cupertino, Calif.-based BeHere's panoramic VR system, which includes software and a special camera that can take a 360-degree panorama of any room or scene with a single click, you'll pay a cool $4,995. That's probably not in your price range if you simply want to experiment with VR.

Still, that technology could be an advantage if you plan to create a number of VR tours. The reason: Without the special camera, you need to take as many as a dozen shots of a single room, using a digital or other camera, and then "stitch" those images together with special software to create a panoramic view of the room. That takes time and finesse.

Do You Want the Glory?

In fact, the biggest decision you may face is, Do you want to do it yourself or hire a service provider? Do-it-yourselfers enjoy the luxury of being in complete control of their project, though you must endure the learning curve associated with a panoramic VR software package. Also, if you plan to take the photos yourself, you need to be an accomplished photographer.

Conversely, full-service providers take over the task of creating a VR walk-through of a house, posting it on the Web, maintaining the VR portion of the site, and resolving any glitches.

In addition, some providers, such as Realtour Online, specialize in servicing real estate professionals. Those providers may have developed a system for taking pictures of properties and will understand the selling points you consider important. Indeed, experienced providers will most likely suggest how to best portray a property on the Net.

The downside, of course, is that full-service solutions tend to be costly over time--creating tours for 10 houses could run $3,000, assuming each house cost $300--and you're at the mercy of the provider's timetable.

It's More Fun When Everyone Can Play

No matter which production option you choose, make sure your VR tour is user-friendly. Your tour's cinematography may rival Spielberg's lastest Academy Award-winning creation, but no one will ever know of its grandeur if it takes too long to download.

"There's a danger with people who are working on the cutting edge," says View360's Kassowitz. "They can easily lose sight of what people in the real world can handle on the typical PC." Consequently, Kassowitz says, he disciplines himself to create worlds that can be quickly downloaded by even the most modest equipment.

Kelly Peters, vice president of Los Angeles-based Evox Productions, another VR tour service provider, agrees: "We test everything we build on a 486, 8MB, 60MG, 8-bit color computer."

In fact, users and creators say the VR tour files should be as small as possible. Ask providers, What are you doing in terms of graphics compression to ensure it's the fastest possible download?

The medium's promoters see little but blue sky ahead as the Internet continues its explosive growth. "Real estate is a visual product, and it makes sense to showcase a home in a medium that plays to that strength," says Virtual Properties' Zellmer.

Dan Patton, BeHere's director of business development, agrees: "The strength of the Internet is its ability to empower salespeople to help consumers go through the self-qualifying process in the comfort of their home or office. The VR tour is a perfect example of this type of value-added information."

For practitioner Lomas, the proof of success is user reaction. "I've been getting a lot of calls from people who are blown away by [my tours]," he says. "Everybody who goes through a VR tour has [a positive] reaction. I can easily see this growing in popularity as more people find out about it."

VR Tours: Ease of use more important than production values

The last thing you want in an online VR tour is a technological homage to the creator rather than a breathtaking sales tool. Here are 10 suggestions from VR-savvy practitioners and service providers to ensure that your tour is user- friendly:

  1. Make sure VR image files are as small as possible so that the tour downloads quickly. Slow-loading tours pack all the fun of a trip to the dentist.--Christian Hicks, communications manager, Apartments.com
  2. If you plan on doing a number of VR tours, try to find a provider that has or is willing to get a real estate license. License VR service providers can access properties to take photos without a practitioner in toe. --Ron Restaino, broker-owner with Restaino, Bunbury & Associates, Madison, Wis.
  3. Talk to your service provider about using a Java-based player to create your tour. VR tours created in Java, a universal computer language, generally play on any computer connected to the Net, though picture quality isn't always as high as in other VR formats, such as the software packages. And make sure the Java player is small so that the tour downloads quickly. Ask your service provider to explain Java in more detail. --Don Patton, director, business development, BeHere, Cupertino, Calif. Note: Java may not be available in all off-the-shelf products.
  4. Whenever possible, avoid VR technologies that require a plug-in, a piece of software that often must be downloaded from the Internet and installed before the VR tour can play. Rule of thumb: Ask your service provider whether the VR tour will play as is on Internet Explorer 4.0 or Netscape 4.0, the two widely used Internet browsers.--Nancy Zellmer, co-owner, Virtual Properties, Madison, Wis.
  5. Offer sophisticated Internet users more viewing options. Experience Internet users are willing to download plug-ins if they can expect a reward, such as a VR tour with a much greater graphics resolution.
  6. Make sure your service provider guarantees that your VR tour will run on America Online. Technologies such as VR may not operate on AOL, which uses proprietary coding, as they would on browser like Internet Explorer and Netscape. But with about 12 million users, AOL offers a potential customer base too large to ignore.--Mark Lomas, broker, Frank, Howard, Allen Realty, Tiburon, Calif.
  7. Consider using a camera that enables you--or your service provider--to take one 360-degree image of a room. Such cameras eliminate the need to take up to a dozen images of a room and stitch them together into a panorama with PC software. Tours that have been stitched together often play with a noticeable visual stutter.--Patton
  8. If you opt for a process using a VR stitching technique, ensure that the service provider can offer a way to virtually eliminate all stitching errors. Realtour Online, for instance, uses a specially designed rotator that eliminates stitching errors.--Realtour Online
  9. Alert buyers about your tour in every possible medium. As part of its package of services, Virtual Properties, for examples, will attach riders to For Sale yard signs informing passersby that the property is also available on the Web for inspections.--Zellmer
  10. Consider service providers that specialize in the realty industry. They may be attuned to your particular needs and respond quickly to changes you need.--Zellmer

Looking for VR Services?

If you want to investigate the VR tour options without picking up a phone, surf the Web sites of companies on the cutting edge of panoramic VR technology.

eVox Productions
IPIX
PictureWorks
View360
Virtual Properties

Brave Enough to Do it Yourself?

VR software awaits you if you're ready to take the plunge and create your own tours.

Live Picture
Quicktime VR

Joe Dysart is an Internet business consultant and technology writer who has been published in Virtual Reality World, The New York Times, NETWorker, and Advertising Age's Business Marketing.

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