The Internet has sharply boosted our visual culture — and it’s especially enhanced the possibility of creating a relationship between a consumer and an image.
The potential to create a connection between users and images is critical. Philosophers think about how an image creates reflections within the mind of the viewer — the image “talks” to the viewer and holds the eyes captive. And an image that can literally captivate an audience is, of course, the dream of the any real-estate marketer seeking real “stickiness.” Fortunately, visual technology has progressed considerably during the past years and is now becoming an important tool for facilitating real estate transactions.
The modern digital consumer expects a truly engaging experience through visually compelling products supplied by companies that thoroughly understand the user’s needs of today and tomorrow. Visualizations reduce consumer insecurity — decisions are easier to make and more informed — and browsing a space digitally from your couch is also more sustainable than traveling to see it. Furthermore, lead generation is improved, and non-potential buyers do not need to take valuable agent time. This improved lead generation means there will be somewhat fewer leads, but they will be much more qualified leads; that’s efficiency, and it sometimes even leads to faster turnaround.
The visualization suppliers are trying (and sometimes succeeding) in various ways to streamline the image “capture, process, present” procedure and bring down the product price. Here are some of the products and technologies available on the market today:
Virtual or interactive photo tours: These feature plain two-dimensional photos or two-dimensional floor plans. These very basic products have existed for some time. Floor plans, however, are surprisingly seldom used in the United States compared with their use in other countries. Elsewhere, floor plans are considered a consumer requirement.
Photo stylers: Using a digital photo styler, you can virtually stage a room and make changes to that space — like wall color or furnishings. Here we are starting to see an extraordinary customer experience for buyers or renters; few consumers have the possibility to imagine drastic changes without such intuitive visual help.
Video tour platforms: These include a fixed or flexible design format where users can insert real estate video shots. That video can be shot by anyone, but high-quality products will likely require video professionals. Consumers who are about to enter the largest transactions of their lives don’t see poor-quality, shaky video as an endorsement of your skills. On the other hand, a high-quality video could give the opposite impression.
Three-dimensional (3D) photos: Photos shot with ordinary single-lens reflex cameras or lasers — or a 3D or infrared sensor camera — followed by software stitching can create 360-degree photos for interactive floor plans, or “dollhouses.” This is another area where professionals should handle the cameras if you want a high-quality product. If shot and processed professionally, these “dollhouses” can provide consumers with valuable information, but they can also present information overflow if not properly styled. Somebody else’s old furniture can distort the images. Physical logistics may make these products less cost-effective, but they will surely find their share of some markets. Other early projects in this area aim to bring 3D motion-capture to the smartphone.
3D visualizations of existing properties: These displays are rendered with different technologies, either labor-intensively by smaller 3D-studios or semi-automatically by players with high automation capacity. Products supplied include 3D floor plans and 3D panoramas (fly-throughs). The capture part of the process either starts with scanning computer-assisted design drawings or plain two-dimensional floor plans; using either as a foundation allows for an automatic creation of 3D visualizations in large volumes. These kind of products suit both residential and commercial rental property owners as well as the brokers and agents who want to add one or several extra dimensions of customer experience to their marketing. Different furniture and styling choices add further marketing dimensions.
3D visualizations of properties to be developed or re-developed: These are similar to the existing-property images but involve more advanced products, such as 3D navigators that allow a consumer or company to visit a development digitally before it is built. Users can view which apartments in a new complex are still available, examine the future living or office spaces, and also plan, decorate and furnish such spaces in advance. Consumers find this tool delightful, and it’s also radically reducing developer expenses. Experiences in Scandinavia show that products like these enhance the customer experience and reduce sales time for developers (and brokers). Recently, a similar but more cost-effective product was introduced to the global real estate portal markets at the Property Portal Watch conference in New York.
3D visualizations with e-commerce functions: A few furnishing products exists where a floor plan (or a 3D panorama) of a space for sale or rent can be furnished with a particular store’s furniture (or items from several stores). Global furniture giants have similar products aimed at their own catalogs.
For new property developments, some players also supply configurators similar to those we see in the automotive industry. These configurators enable the consumer to digitally view and select alternatives and then pre-order items like kitchen and bathware equipment from the developer’s selection.
WebGL and the new realities: Most of the above products are enabled on PC, tablets and smartphones through WebGL, the new standard graphic language for web browsers. And 2015 is allegedly the year that a surge of augmented reality and virtual reality applications hit the market.
These new concepts will certainly make their entry into real estate marketing, too. Before that happens, however, the necessary equipment must become widespread. WebGL certainly can supply advanced visualization technology for many years to come. The ultimate experience that virtual reality is able to create will be a useful complement to the new WebGL possibilities in modern browsers.
The visualization technology development is rapidly changing, and so are the consumers. The real estate sector has, however, been rather slow to adapt to the new possibilities. An excellent customer experience is necessary in all commercial activity. The buying and renting of real estate is often a critical decision for a family or a company — and an excellent customer experience is, therefore, a must-have.
Despite this necessity, the use of digital visualization to facilitate such real estate transactions has been slow in many countries. This is likely to change in the coming years as the benefits of digital visualizations became more and more evident. Established marketing experience shows clear advantages.
The good news is that the above products and technologies have already become, or will become, very affordable through the streamlining of the image “capture-process-present” workflow. This industrialization process combined with the benefits of visual marketing ensure that digital visualization will be an imperative aspect of future real estate marketing.
Hans Engblom is the senior investment manager at SEC Venture Capital.