Business Software & Tech - Where Next for Portals?

Published: 13 November 2014 (Last modified: 17 December 2014)

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Portal to a new world?

Where is new technology taking property portals? Why are we still living 2D in a 3D world?

Portal to a new world

We have entered a digital era, where 2.3 billion people use their mobile phones to access the internet, anywhere, any time. But while the digital revolution is exciting and full of opportunities, it is also vast, unknown and daunting. With new technologies appearing daily. How do you know what could be beneficial to your business and what's a waste of money?

We at Propertyshowrooms.com set out to meet top level property industry experts and hear what types of digital technology they think are likely to impact the very nature of buying and selling real estate. Even more importantly, how can individual businesses stay ahead of the game and build their business?

Show, don't tell

We have been, so far, still living in a world where people look at static images on portals much as they would look at property details on a page. Yet advanced visuals, or immersive technology, can offer so much more to our customers than mere words or simple photographs. They can create an experience as opposed to a description, a story, not just a list of attributes. A property that can be properly “experienced" within a few minutes, without having to leave your home, not only saves time and money on wasted viewings, more than that it leaves a lasting impression.

The most important visual technologies are:

Augmented reality

Defined by James Dearsley, founder of The Digital Marketing Bureau as technology that “superimposes a computer generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus producing a composite view." In the real estate world it enables customers to visualize new developments, bringing buildings to life with 3D images, animation and sound whether viewed on a tablet, smartphone or wearable tech such as Google Glass. One of the most impressive augmented reality (AR) applications for the property industry is Virtual View, available on Apple and Android built specifically for the residential and commercial property sector. “It's very cost effective and it means that every single agent in the world can start to embed videos into their brochure material," says Mr Dearsley, providing a range of cost effective augmented services from “embedding videos in to pages, all the way through to having 3D images of their properties appear".

Customers simply download the Virtual View app to a smartphone and by scanning 2D images of properties either in a printed brochure or on the Virtual View website a 3D image of the property appears on their screen, this image then branches out to display the property floor plan.

Fine in theory, but does the industry want it? We met Jack Haining of Grosvenor at MIPIM UK and asked him what his thoughts are on AR for retail property. He said that he felt it would help the agent most of all: “It's a case of being able to show a tenant a vision, and it's likely to help in the development process in terms of pre-lets, as it enables, through tablets or phones, somebody to actually see what the property is going to look like. They can go to the site and hold their phone or tablet in front of them and almost walk through a scheme in a way that's never been possible before. That gives them that extra bit of confidence they might need to put a deposit down and to agree to occupy a building. We haven't used it yet, but we're looking strongly at augmented reality on the basis of being able to sweep your phone up and down a high-street or in front of a shop then superimpose data; for example opening times, live reviews or even flash up promotions for specific shops tailored to your demographic or interest. It's got huge potential to aid the physical environment."

For us, augmented reality has two key benefits; firstly it makes marketing or materials more interactive, exciting and ultimately fun. Secondly it provides an exciting alternative when marketing off-plan or new-build developments, one that is far more accessible than simply seeing a model because it means that via a portal you can see what the building will look like in real life.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) is more than a visual aid; it enables agents and buyers to become completely immersed in a development or property beyond the boundaries of space and time, if that doesn't all sound a bit Star Trek. Using the latest generation of immersive head-worn display sets, VR lets buyers and investors not only see a property that may be on another continent and hasn't been built yet, but it allows them to walk around it, meet the agent within that property and navigate around it as if they were actually there.

For that, customers will need a headset, the cost and inconvenience of which has been a barrier to the mass uptake of the technology. But as James Dearsley points out, the purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook for $2billion this year “means virtual reality is going to hit the masses at some point." Indeed Mark Zuckerberg said: “We're making a long term bet that augmented and virtual reality will become a part of our daily lives."

Even better, Google has come up with Google Cardboard, a fold-out cardboard smartphone mount. You just make the cardboard shape – that a developer will probably have branded and posted to you, or given you at an exhibition – and insert a smartphone into the front of the cardboard device. Combined with lenses built into the cardboard, this allows the wearer to see images on the smartphone screen as one single 3D image. So we have an affordable, easy to distribute and easy to brand product being marketed by the world's biggest and most popular corporations.

At MIPIM UK we asked Dave White of the Reading Real Estate Foundation what he thought: “I love the idea. I think technology is only going to grow and get cheaper over time. I think that if you could do that in a commercial aspect occupiers would be able to get a feel for the property."

Drone images

We are barely scratching the surface of the potential for using drone images on portals. Yet they can offer a far more exciting and intimate view of a property online, flying close and even inside to dramatically capture detail. Again, with a musical accompaniment and voice-over you are telling a powerful, inspirational story of what it would be like to live there.

Dave White believes drones have “great potential for saving time and money… If someone can fly around a building and decide they want to view it, that's great. Even if they don't want to view it after seeing the surroundings on video, that saves time that would have been wasted on an unsuccessful viewing." He suggested another potential saving for the industry: “I was talking to a building surveyor who is asking for one from his firm so he can go check out the roof on buildings. It will bring down the price and time involved in getting a building surveyed structurally because he won't necessarily have to go up there there unless he spots a big defect."

We spoke to a number of film companies in London last year who had just begun to offer drone filming as part of their property development marketing package. Due to licensing requirements, getting traditional aircraft over built-up areas like central London can often be challenging, while drones provide a more feasible, and cheaper, option. However, regulations regarding drones are still, for now, a grey area in high density areas.

3D Printing

Many of our portal visitors still print off property details to view them on paper. But as the price of 3D printing comes down and printers become a household item, we are approaching a time where they will instead print off a 3D plastic model of the property. Developers are already using 3D models produced direct from CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawings as cost effective alternatives to traditional model making, meaning models can be altered to incorporate new design elements and even printed on-site for an exhibition or product launch. Two of the biggest advantages, as James Dearsley points out, is that “3D printed models rather than building balsawood ones are more cost effective, and you can print them out wherever you want them to be."

At MIPIM UK, local authorities had created vast 3D models of entire cities, delivering the wow factor and proving that although digital marketing is popular, physical models are still hugely powerful. How long until we can include a “Print this in 3D" button on our portal?

A social animal

While social media has rapidly taken a central role in our culture, many industries including property are reluctant to fully incorporate it into their marketing strategies. Property professionals we consulted broke this down into two issues: one, the industry as a whole has been slow to adapt to the use of digital channels and two, uncertainties as to whether the benefits of social media outweigh the negatives.

Connectivity = complaints?

Social media can get you attention online and build brand awareness cost-effectively. But exactly what sort of awareness are you creating?

Dave White says that for developers who may be disrupting traffic or upsetting the locals, “A presence on Twitter leads to more people being able to complain more easily... On the one hand they can announce potential road closures, but on the other hand people could be sitting in their taxi and getting angry because they can't get through, and blaming the developer for that."

There's no denying that social media fuels debate and discussion, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Consumers can alert companies to potential problems, which companies can directly and immediately address. As James Dearsley explains: “People think there's a problem here and there really isn't. You can pick that negativity up within two seconds if you wanted to from anywhere, on any platform; blogs, forums, tweets, Facebook updates, Google updates, every single thing is measurable, quantifiable and alertable.

“Even if you are being mentioned negatively you've got to put it all into context; the person who's mentioning that brand negatively, have they got an audience? Have they got influence? Have they got authority? Most likely they haven't. So that's akin to somebody being disappointed with somebody's service and walking in to an open room and shouting “OMG, this company's rubbish!" But there's nobody in that room! If you've got the right things in place in the social world and in the digital marketing world, you will know within two minutes that somebody has said something bad about you. So my argument is why ever be afraid of that."

How can we leverage the popularity of social media on portals? At Property showrooms you can easily share and comment on properties via Facebook, and it is up to Facebook, now owning a VR app like Oculus Rift, to, as James Dearsley puts it: “build Facebook as a platform across multiple layers, so rather than just Facebook updates and discussion with friends suddenly you're going to Facebook for other reasons."

What will this mean for the property industry? Prospective buyers will be able to find everything they need in one place chances. Just as smartphones have rendered calculators, maps, simple cameras and even newspapers obsolete, the more time prospective buyers spend on social networks where they have all the fun, the news and the entertainment they need, chances are when the time comes to buy a property the company they choose will be the brand they find on their favourite social medium.

Don’t call us we’ll call you

If we’re in a location and we see a house with a For Sale board up outside it, we can easily find its details via a mobile portal. But suppose the house could detect your presence, and invite you in?

Now they can, using either NFC (Near Field Communication) for detecting and sending snippects of information to Android devices or iBeacon which does the same for iPhones and other iOS devices. Both iBeacons and NFC know where you are geographically, so if you walked past a shop with a tag that relates to to you (the consumer), you may receive a promotional message.

James explains that if you have already expressed an interest in a local shop or product by downloading its app, and the technology “sees” you walking down the street, it can send you a text or message alerting you of a special offer in-store that day. “You don’t have to do anything with that, and as long as retailers and property companies, use it in the correct way and it’s contextual to the person that’s walking down and it’s all relevant to them, I think iBeacons could be more powerful than augmented reality. It’s all about using tech in the right way, not the wrong way.”

For the property industry, iBeacon and NFC open a world of possibilities. Imagine a couple have already visited your show home in your area one Sunday afternoon and signed up for updates. Three weeks later you detect them in the area again; ping goes the message telling them that you have released another phase, would they like to pop in and have a look, as they are passing…?

Cracking the code

What technology should you go for? The type that best fits your particular business model. Here we've highlighted some of the tech we at Propertyshowrooms.com are looking to implement in the future, but also those that are being widely discussed as having the potential to transform how the real estate world operates.

So the key to knowing what the future holds for your property business is up to you, there's a ton of technology out there, but there's also plenty of research available. By learning and staying ahead of the trends, you will be more equipped to choose the right tech to support your real estate business.

For further information: We interviewed James (watch full Google Hangout Video)

Sophie Elliott on behalf of Propertyshowrooms.com


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