Virtual-reality house hunting: It's almost like being there

At first blush, local broker Brett Furman's listings seem like many others: There are pricey properties and cheaper ones; some close to the city, and some far away. Million-dollar English Tudors and $175,000 townhouses sit side by side on his website, waiting to be snatched up by buyers.

But unlike most brokers, Furman can show you all of them, in a matter of moments.

No, not pictures. Actual walk-throughs of homes. One minute, you could be inside the master bedroom of a $1.4 million Bryn Mawr property, making your way through a walk-in closet. Ten minutes later, you could be in Malvern, examining countertops in a new kitchen.

All with one silly-looking scuba mask.

Actually, it takes a little more than that: Furman is one of Philadelphia's first to embrace virtual-reality real estate technology, a burgeoning industry that's already made a splash in such markets across the nation as San Francisco and New York.

Though it's still in the early stages of adoption in this region, industry observers predict that virtual reality could transform the real estate field's days of open houses and blueprints into a future of more efficiency and ease.

Already, observers are bullish about virtual reality, with Goldman Sachs predicting that it could become part of an $80 billion overall market by 2025, nearly the size of the desktop PC market today. Citi, meanwhile, has set expectations even higher: By 2025, it predicted last year, virtual reality could become a $692 billion industry.

"There's a bright future for virtual reality," said Jeff Maurer, CEO of Virtual Xperience, a New York City-based company that creates virtual 3-D renderings of blueprints for luxury spaces - often before the buildings break ground. Virtually constructing and staging what the property could eventually look like can help buyers determine early on whether they would like to purchase. Developers, meanwhile, can sell multimillion-dollar units before they even exist physically.

"Consumers have more and more [virtual-reality technology] at home," Maurer said. "It's very similar to the adoption of smartphones in the early 2000s, when just one in every 10th person had one. . . . I think virtual reality will follow a same pattern."

In some ways, virtual reality's emergence in the real estate sector seems long overdue. The technology has been hyped for years and is making waves in the gaming, health and media sectors. In 2014, Facebook jumped in, acquiring Oculus, the virtual-reality tech giant. Even former President Obama embraced the trend last year, headlining in a video set in Yosemite National Park that viewers could interact with using a virtual-reality headset.

Still, VR has been slow to entrench itself in the real estate industry, in part, observers say, because of the initial higher price tags of the hardware and a slow trickle of real estate-focused content. Plus, questions remain whether the technology will be widely accessible, and whether enough buyers will want to use it.

But through companies such as California-based Matterport, Maurer's Virtual Xperience, and Philadelphia's FetchIt 360, creating and accessing virtual real estate content has become easier.

A self-described "tech nerd," Furman, owner of Re/Max Classic Realtors in Wayne, said he has always tried to stay on top of the latest trends in real estate tech. After 30 years in the business, he's seen a lot: the transition from schematics to photos to video tours.

So when he discovered Matterport last year, he knew it would be the next vital piece to marketing his listings.

Launched in 2011 as a way to create three-dimensional reconstructions of homes that buyers can then click through and explore, Matterport over the years has evolved into one of the most popular virtual-reality real estate technology companies in the nation.

With its 3-D camera selling for $4,500, the company allows agents and developers to take their own photos inside a property and upload them into Matterport's software, which automatically transforms the pictures into lifelike 3-D models of the homes. Then users can connect VR headsets to the models, plunging them inside and allowing prospective buyers to interact with a house the same way they would in real life.

"When I put the headset on, I feel like I'm in the space," said Bill Brown, Matterport's CEO. "If I want to see something to the left, I just turn my head to the left. . . . People forget about the environment they are in."

For nearly three months, Furman has been using the immersive experience, applying the Matterport technology to about 30 properties. He has space and a headset in his real estate office for clients to view the listings - and soon, he said, he will send out lower-cost headsets.

"Their faces light up and they just keep saying, 'This is really cool,' " Furman said. Plus, he said, it saves people from going to properties that are a waste of their time.

According to its advocates, one of the main advantages of virtual reality is the ability it gives house hunters to access distant properties conveniently. Want to view a property in Philadelphia but live in New York City? Strap on a VR headset and take a look without ever having to leave your home.

The technology enhances efficiency, too, its proponents say, reducing the number of open houses a seller must offer and easily eliminating unwanted properties that a would-be buyer has already toured. Still, there are concerns: Virtual technology is known to cause motion sickness. And will enough people embrace the idea?

With smartphone-compatible Google Cardboard, sold for $15, and Samsung Gear VR, sold for $100, headsets today are easier to afford. (Oculus headsets, which provide a more fully immersive experience, cost about $600 each.)

Locally, Kenneth Dunning, 43, has been relying on Google Cardboard to make his real estate projects work. His company, FetchIt 360, films and creates 3-D virtual tours for properties in the Philadelphia region, all of which can be viewed with the Google headsets.

A 2,000-square-foot space costs about $800, Dunning said, and can be created within a week. From there, real estate agents can disperse the video to prospective buyers, along with free Cardboard glasses - though, Dunning said, properties don't stay on the market for long.

"A home sells or rents 10 times faster when you use virtual reality," he said. "People tell a friend, 'I'm using this agent who sent me a headset where I could see the house, I could walk through the house, and I didn't have to drive out or do anything.'

"It's top of the line - very futuristic."

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