Augmented Reality: Presenting a Superimposed World

AR is finding a place in the real estate business. See who’s using it for real.
couch superimposed on empty room photo

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Nina Siegenthaler, a sales associate with Turks & Caicos Sotheby’s International Realty, listed an unfurnished multimillion-dollar property on the Caribbean island last December, but the 10,000 square feet of empty space, including a hexagonal living area, required a good deal of imagination from buyers. Her solution was a technology that enables visitors to pull in virtual furniture using their phone’s camera while they roam from room to room.

The promise of augmented reality in recent years is becoming, well, reality among forward-looking brokerages, like Sotheby’s, and among real estate professionals trying out other AR apps.

As more tech and real estate companies delve into AR by projecting digital information like graphics, text, and sound onto the real world, it’s a good idea to understand how it may affect the way you show properties. AR can be delivered through wearable smart visors or, as more often the case lately, through a smartphone or tablet (a trend that took off during a Pokemon Go video game craze in 2016).

AR offers big pluses for those on both sides of a transaction. Buyers can visualize a space according to their own design tastes. Sellers and their agents save money and time by not needing to stage a property. Most properties that Siegenthaler lists are already furnished, but in cases where a home is unfurnished or needs a modernized update, she says she’ll consider using the AR app to shave off the thousands of dollars in staging costs. In the Caribbean, transportation costs and import duties make staging especially expensive.

Last year, Sotheby’s launched Curate by Sotheby’s International Realty for iOS and Android devices. Through the app, buyers swap out furniture and can select from preset design styles (such as mid--century, rustic, and traditional) while viewing the space through the phone’s camera. They also can opt to buy the selected furnishings later directly from the app, created in partnership with the furniture and accessories marketplace Vivet.

“The ability to ‘walk through’ furnished spaces with AR” allows buyers to reimagine the home, Siegenthaler says. “It allows for visualization without imposing set ideas upon the buyer and also creates a wonderful dialogue between buyers and agents about some of the concepts they create.” Designing a space as they’re viewing it in person offers advantages over static virtual staging.

AR vs. VR

While virtual reality technology using headsets has captured more of the buzz than augmented reality in real estate circles, VR isn’t likely to become part of the everyday homebuying process anytime soon, tech experts say. Building headset-compatible VR tours is costlier than launching an AR app, and few people even own a VR headset. AR, on the other hand, is accessible to anyone with a smartphone, says Jack Miller, president and chief technology officer at T3 Sixty, a real estate consulting and research company.

The launch of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore in 2017 gave developers a framework to create AR apps for business and everyday life. At the CES 2019 tech event in January, companies touted everything from smart glasses that overlay website information, stream videos, and display maps (from a CES 2019 innovation winner called Vuzix Blade AR Smart Glasses) to smartphone apps for tending to a garden using AR (the Connected Garden Super Sensor).

Other real estate companies are envisioning new uses for AR as well. Last year, Compass brokerage executives discussed their intention to reinvent For Sale signs, including an AR prototype where passersby could swap the home’s exterior paint color from the sign. AR one day could change home inspections or showings by overlaying detailed digital information about the home’s systems and appliances, Miller says. The new-home industry could tout tools that help consumers visualize a home on a specific piece of land, adds Jeff Turner, CEO of immoviewer, a virtual 360-degree and 3D tour company.

Coolness and cost savings aside, the companies unlocking AR’s potential are important for real estate pros to follow because the public may soon expect AR from you. Siegenthaler is glad she tried out Sotheby’s app, and she plans to continue using it. “It allows buyers to have a hand in creating their own look,” she says. “It brings the possibilities to life.”

Give augmented reality a try with these apps.

Jack Miller breaks down AR and VR technology in this recent Q&A.