My feet are on the ground, but my head is up in the sky. It is odd, disconcerting and a little exhilarating. It is hard to feel completely at ease when you are trying to navigate your way around a 25th-floor apartment with a chunky headset strapped to your face. Despite logic telling me otherwise, it really does feel as though I’m more than 20 storeys up. As I peer out of the property’s floor-to-ceiling windows, my stomach lurches. Welcome to the world of virtual-reality home viewing.
This is one housing bubble you might actually want. Virtual reality, or VR, used to be only for gaming geeks; now it is hitting high-street estate agencies to showcase new developments, country properties that are too far away to visit and buildings in need of conversion — even normal Victorian terraces are getting in on the act.
“We have to move with the times,” says Charlotte Russell, associate director at JLL Residential in Stratford, east London. “This does far more than a floor plan and pictures in giving someone an understanding of a space. People are very wary of photographs, but you can’t edit these VR images, so buyers feel more comfortable and confident about what they are seeing.”
How does it work? Once you have chosen a home you would like to take a look at, rather than supplying a glossy brochure or arranging a time to visit the property in person, an estate agent will invite you into their virtual viewing area. So far, no fuss.
Using a bespoke app, the property tour is loaded onto a smartphone, which is then placed inside a virtual-reality headset. Remember how silly you felt when you wore your first pair of 3D glasses? It’s like that, but worse. This, I’m told, is what the future of househunting is going to be like.
“People will have an idea from doing the tour, they will be pretty sure they want to go ahead, and have that one final check by actually going into the property,” Russell says.
By moving their head, a user can steer their way around the property. I get a complete 360-degree view of the living room, known as a “surroundie”, and when I twirl to see if the picture can keep up with me there’s only a slight delay.
Unlike the selfie, the surroundie is not shot from an odd angle to exaggerate or distort features. The VR apps use photographs taken with a specially designed 360-degree camera, that portrays the interior and exterior of a property accurately.
“The 360s are created from start to finish and ready to go in less than 10 minutes,” says Domenic Versace, director and co-founder of Vieweet, the property technology company that developed the virtual-reality tours for JLL. “I have heard of agents trying to use an Oculus Rift [a more advanced VR headset], but it’s more cumbersome and expensive.”
Vieweet charges estate agents £1 a month for each property it hosts on its app, whereas a traditional brochure can cost £2-£3 each.
“If people can’t come into a branch, some agents will send out a free set of Google Cardboard goggles, which work in the same way as the headsets in a branch,” Versace says. “The format can be applied to all types of property. Agents use VR for homes from £100,000 to £1m. One of the issues in rural areas is commute time. Sometimes they’ve got a 45-minute drive to get from the office to a property. If someone came into the branch, they can have a look at a few places using VR and shortlist what they want to see.”
While it takes a little getting used to, making a mental note of fixtures and fittings rather than jotting things down on a notepad, I still cast the same critical eye as I would on a real-life viewing. There’s also an appeal in the fact that I can look around several properties in one place and filter out the good from the bad. The best bit? I still get to grill the agent with my questions as I go along.
“The experience is completely controllable by the purchaser, so if they want to take the time to look at the simplest of things, such as how the doors to the terrace open and close, they can,” says Richard Cook, head of residential at Lend Lease, which is also giving properties the VR treatment. “We’ve developed the technology so that you can change the colour scheme in the kitchen at the click of a button — and we have already seen reservations on the back of it.
“It can appear a foreign concept for those who haven’t used it before, but most of the time people are hooked after their first try,” he adds.
The majority of cardboard headsets get posted overseas to investors for whom this is the only way they will ever see the property before purchase.
Developers are also getting in on the action: from next month, prospective buyers at Berkeley’s South Quay Plaza, in east London, will be able to “tour” the apartments, pool and residents’ lounge that won’t exist in reality until 2020.
Dan Harper, managing director at Cityscape Digital, believes the adoption of virtual-reality viewings marks the beginning of an industry-changing “proptech” movement.
“There is the potential to deliver innovation in the way property is conceived, designed and sold,” he says. “If you have a profile of the potential customer, you can customise the VR sales experience. If you know they are a family with children aged five and seven, two of the bedrooms can be decorated as a kid’s bedroom rather than the standard room layout.”
Harper also predicts that emerging technologies such as smart sensors could be used to gather data on how current buildings can be used to improve the design of future ones.
Personally, I don’t feel that comfortable parting with tens of thousands of pounds on the back of a VR viewing, but I can see how it’s a useful way to filter out the duds by getting a real feel for what a property looks like. And because they don’t edit the images, the agent can’t pull the wool over your eyes — just over the VR headset.