Estate agents are not well liked, and before we get your hopes up, developments in augmented reality are not going to make them go away. There is a good chance though that AR might reduce the time you have to spend dealing with them or, more importantly, the bad ones that insist you must see a property of theirs that simply isn’t appropriate for what you’re after.
Already mobile AR has made a lot of in roads into the real estate industry. There are a hat full of apps on both Android and iOS from the online property aggregators, in both the US and Europe, who’ve decided that there’s an edge in allowing potential buyers to stand in the neighbourhood of their choosing and look around through the cameras of their smartphones to see if there’s anything on the market.
The trouble, as we’ve already seen on AR Week, is that this kind of approach to mobile augmented reality can still quite easily be accused of gimmickry. After all, is the information you see on your mobile phone screen displayed in that manner necessarily better than a top down map view? Is it any more useful than standing on a street and allowing the same app to pull in the property data according to your GPS signal and show it on Google Maps instead? According to Lawrence Hall of UK property website Zoopla, even at this basic level that consumer AR has reached, the answer is “yes”.
“By being able to walk or drive past a property, point your mobile at it using augmented reality and instantly be able to call or email the agent or see what it is worth today or what was paid for it in the past empowers users and, in the case of Zoopla.co.uk, it also delivers valuable enquiries to agents on our site.”
Zoopla was the first UK property site to incorporate AR into its mobile application and Hall certainly makes an attractive, if anecdotal, case for taking the time to do so. It adds a certain window shopping, spur of the moment type approach to finding somewhere to live. Yes, you could do the same with an annotated version of Google Maps, but the point is that it’s a much more powerful connection when the house or flat that you’re sizing up remains under your gaze as you do so. What’s really holding AR back in this field is the amount and level of information that the apps currently display, something which Hall has been quick to recognise.
“Accuracy of data and technical limitations are the key issues surrounding AR. Basically it can be difficult to pinpoint accuracy in real time due to the current hardware and technicalities involved.”
For his first point, there’s the problem of how quickly the property websites are updated. Anyone who’s bought a house will tell you that most of the best properties never make it online before an offer has been accepted. You simply have to register with the estate agents to get first pick. Holding up your phone and getting all excited to find out that the house isn’t available doesn’t help the user think that AR is a good idea. Thankfully, though, there is the other part of the Zoopla app database which you can simply use to find out how much properties nearby were sold for, just to get a picture of whether you can afford an area you just found yourself taking a liking to, and that’s not so time sensitive.
The second point is that the information available just isn’t rich enough for the moment and it seems as much a lack of imagination on the part of the developers as the technical challenges involved. For AR in property to really take off, the app needs to tell you everything you want to know the minute you hold up your phone to a house. In an ideal world, it would recognise the building and provide an overlay of the layout of the rooms which, perhaps, you could click on to offer 360 degree tours based on internal photographs, that the estate agents have taken, and a floorplan of the premises.
Best of all would be to tie in a future development of mobile AR such as X-Ray Vision - a technology that allows the user to see through the walls of a house and find out exactly what lies behind as you move your phone over the property. It's currently being tested and refined by Christian Sandor and his team at the Magic Vision Labs in the University of South Australia, and you can read more about it in our interview with them earlier in AR Week.
It’s arguable as to the depths one would need to go before deciding to take the time to arrange a viewing, but there’s no reason why the energy efficiency rating and council tax bands couldn’t be represented by different colours displayed on the roofs of the houses. You could even conjure up views from the windows to see what the street outside would look like from within and how much light you get and from which direction. In short, it could save you the time of having to meet up with the estate agent at a later date only to find that there’s something about the residence that you just don’t like.
While X-Ray Vision might be some way off, there are some interesting apps available such as TagWhat which would allow an estate agency to create their own AR maps of local areas without having to spend the money on a dedicated phone application of their own. TagWhat works by allowing someone to add virtual tags to any location they choose and, in this case, the internal photos, distances to transport links, energy ratings and such would be those tags. You would then share this map to anyone looking for houses in the area and they could see them through their TagWhat browser as they hold their phones up and have a look around.
If data protection and privacy were less of an issue, then an app could also let you know the details of any surveys on the property, where extensions and repairs have been made as well as how many times and even if it had been burgled. Hit the button for environment and you get markers pointing out your nearest transport links, banks, food shops, schools and all the other staple amenities as well as warnings if anyone nearby happened to be on the sex offenders register. More than anything though, the app needs to be smart so as not to bring in all the information at once, but only that which is relevant. If all is well with the house apart from the fact that it’s miles to the nearest train station, then perhaps it’s just that data that’s needed for display.
Only if it got to the point where the owner or landlord could leave a virtual marker to say that they were home and prepared to show potential buyers around the property, would we have pretty much put estate agents out of a job. All the same, the need for an intermediary to broker the deal would most likely still be of considerable enough importance, but perhaps the Saturday morning run-arounds in the company Mini might be a thing of the past.
While most of what's available in AR for the property and real estate industry is very much based in the mobile space, there is another interesting approach that could work in the estate agent's favour. It's all very well when you have the opportunity to show clients round a beautifully decorated house, but one is rather relying on their imagination when it comes to brand new builds or empty properties.
To get around that, the agency could install either a series of projectors or, perhaps more interesting for the customers, offer them head-mounted displays when they enter the building. They could then walk around and enjoy computer-generated virtual furniture and decorations to make the place feel more homely.
However the industry chooses to embrace technology, there are plenty of opportunities right in front of them to help drive a more time efficient, if not lucrative, business and there's also even now an angle for the user to exploit as well.
Advances in AR could make it even more relevant to this part of life, but nothing will get past the problem of having to be quick on the draw to snap up properties before anyone else does. If it's not speed that you require, then at least what's around in the way of apps at the moment will help you window shop and get a better idea of where you might want to live. As for being able to make that final decision, you'll still need to walk into a house to know that you've found your home.
For more information on what Qualcomm is doing with Augmented Reality please click: http://www.qualcomm.co.uk/products/augmented-reality
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