A few years ago, computer engineer David Payne was looking to buy a new home in Toronto's entertainment district. With the condo boom in full swing, he and his wife were treated to a veritable buffet of demo suites for forthcoming high-rises, but each time they left the sales centre they had more questions than answers. "We still couldn't understand what the unit would look like, what the effect of sunlight would be," he says. "We didn't know what we were buying."
A friend of his was having a similar problem. So, he offered to help. Mr. Payne turned the 2-D floor plan used for marketing into a 3-D mockup, then later added the feature of a walk-through in the style of a video game – but instead of shooting at zombies, say, the setting was populated with living room furniture and kitchen appliances.
Building a virtual home is now the specialty of his technology company, Invent Dev. With the consumer version of Oculus Rift, the world's first mass-market virtual reality headset, set for release in early 2016, he's banking on the VR show home to revolutionize the real estate and home-building industries.
"It's the closest thing to visiting the actual home," says Mr. Payne, who's currently demoing it to home builders, using the developer kit version of Oculus Rift. "While they have the VR headset on, they can actually change the entire finishes based on the options the real estate developer provides."
Invent Dev is not alone in this marketplace. Calgary technology marketing company Strut Creative is courting large-scale developers to turn their computer-aided designs, or CAD, into immersive home tours of entire residential neighbourhoods that are still on the drawing board. In June, startup Matterport raised $30-million (U.S.) for a camera it invented to capture real environments in 360 degrees, which has been adopted by California real estate agents to show homes without ever leaving their offices.
Colliers International recently partnered with Vancouver visual effects firm Vividus and developer PCI Group to create a virtual experience of a floor of Marine Gateway, a $370-million (Canadian) mixed-use office, residential and retail tower, for commercial tenants.
"It gives you a better sense of spacial awareness," says Hari Minhas, Colliers' Western Canada director of marketing. "Are the cubicles big enough? Is the board room too small? What's the distance between the walls?"
Tracy Bowie, vice-president of IIDEXCanada, a national architecture and design conference, has seen these VR demonstrations. The technology allows home buyers and tenants to see spaces from the inside out and how they might change with the seasons. More importantly, it accelerates the design process, allowing designers and architects to tinker with the space before construction begins.
"All this time, we've been thinking about [VR's] implications for gaming, but it's clear what it could do for real estate," she says.
For Scott Hamilton of Calgary and Edmonton land developer Hopewell Residential, it's all about building confidence for buyers as they navigate the market. "It allows us to prototype models and try different things … and ask: 'How does this feel?'" he says. "You just don't get that from 2-D dimensional blueprints or 3-D renderings."
He demoed a two-storey Craftsman home decorated with Asian art, fruit bowls and mid-century modern sofas. The designer, Strut Creative, had simply taken a home-builder's CAD, polished it and furnished it with 3-D designs that were enhanced for cohesive decor. The finishes can be swapped out to sample colour palettes or to "upgrade" the kitchen.
"Aside from it being an interesting way to market a home, it also has applications for the builder's own designing phase," says Chris McPhail, managing director of Strut, who began using Oculus Rift to design an underground drilling rig simulator for an energy client before residential developers took notice.
He doesn't believe VR will replace show homes – serious buyers will still yearn for tactility to help make one of the biggest decisions of their lives – but the technology can allow developers to broaden their marketing efforts.
"You can now take the product to where the people are, instead of driving them to your sales centre," says Mr. McPhail. "There could be permanent retail stores in a mall, like an Apple Store, but they work with a sales person to experience homes."
Mr. Hamilton predicts Hopewell is two years away from offering the VR experience for homeowners at sales centres, kiosks or from the comfort of their couches as virtual reality headgear, such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR or HTC Vive, becomes commonplace.
That is, if they can get over the motion sickness.
Mr. McPhail says half the people who demo Strut's home experiences some dizziness or nausea. They become disoriented by lagging between their physical head movements and the virtual one, as well as the absence of hands, nose and feet from their peripheries. Mr. Payne of Invent Dev has also witnessed this with prospective clients, but says one's brain adjusts the more time spent wearing it. "I can wear it for hours and I'm fine."
"That did discourage me a bit," says Invent Dev client Michael Wywrot of Lifestyle Custom Homes. "It made me think that there's a certain demographic that doesn't want to use it at all." It hired the company to create a desktop and tablet virtual reality tour of its new Toronto townhouse development, but opted out of the Oculus Rift feature.
Dizziness is not a concern for Mr. Hamilton of Hopewell Residential. It's demographics. "It's going to be huge when you're talking to a generation of buyers that grew up with gaming – it won't phase them at all," he says. "But, right now, you're dealing with buyers [who] are going to be weirded out when you ask them to strap this on their heads."