New technology is taking virtual tours a step further by letting buyers drive cameras mounted on remote-controlled vehicles through distant homes, venturing from room to room, peeking around corners and taking in near-360-degree views from multiple vantage points.
San Francisco-based luxury real estate developer JMA Ventures LLC is using a system developed by Suitable Technologies Inc. to let homebuyers roam through its properties and communicate with sales agents in real time from anywhere in the world.
Kevin Morgan, vice president of acquisitions and finance for JMA Ventures, gave Inman News a Beam Pro tour of one of the firm's Ghirardelli Square units.
Key to the experience is Suitable Technologies’ robot-like Beam Pro. The remote-controlled vehicle, which stands over 5 feet tall, transmits a video feed of homebuyers’ faces onto a 17-inch screen and broadcasts their voices through six speakers arrayed on both Beam’s front and back.
Buyers, in turn, see their surroundings through Beam’s wide-angle camera as they use a computer keyboard to guide it, tooling around at speeds that can exceed 2 miles per hour. Users can also hear the sounds it picks up with its two microphones, as information is transmitted to and from the device by a high-speed Wi-Fi network.
The Beam Pro is expensive, which might confine it to the high-end luxury property market. One Beam Pro goes for $16,000 and costs about $1,200 a year to operate, said Adam Schroder, chief technology officer at JMA Ventures.
However, Suitable Technologies is rolling out a cheaper model, Beam+, this winter that might bring the technology to a broader swath of property types. The $1,995 Beam+ will be shorter, have half the battery life, and will max out at around 1 mile per hour.
JMA Ventures has been using four Beam Pros for about a year to help sell properties near San Francisco’s iconic Ghirardelli Square, and also Lake Tahoe, to luxury buyers from around the world who don’t always have the time to tour homes in person.
“Before Beam, seeing one of our units was confined to the basic rules of physics — we had to get somebody there,” Schroder said. Beam allowed the firm to take that logistical hardship of selling a property off the table, he said.
Having multiple Beam units also allows families to virtually tour a place together, Schroder said. In some tours JMA Ventures has coordinated, kids will race the hallways and check out what would be their rooms on their own Beams while their parents tour the place with the sales agent, Schroder said.
Smartphones and tablets have put the capability for live video tours in the pocket or bag of every agent. Photo-realistic 3-D virtual home tours pioneered by firms like Matterport and Surefield can also give distant buyers a feel for a space.
But Beam provides home shoppers a much deeper experience, Schroder said. With Beam, buyers come away with the distinct impression that they actually visited a place, he said.
Instead of just saying they toured a home, homebuyers who have scoped a place with Beam will say things like, “I went to Ghirardelli Square today,” Schroder said. It redefines the concept of what being somewhere means, he said.
Schroder said JMA Ventures focused on showcasing its Ghirardelli Square and Lake Tahoe properties with Beam because of the opportunity for the stunning visuals the locations afford.
Getting prospective buyers to use Beam has been one of the biggest challenges so far, Schroder said. “They think it’s just another conference call.”
The firm has given Beam tours to approximately 20 clients and as of June hadn’t sold any properties to remote buyers solely using the technology, Schroder said.
Inman News had the opportunity to tour a JMA Ventures unit in Ghirardelli Square with Schroder and Kevin Morgan, vice president of acquisitions and finance for JMA Ventures.
The Beam Pro-mediated tour was both intriguing and surprising.
With the keyboard’s arrow keys, you can send the Beam in any direction, spin it in place, move forward, turn or go backward, and adjust its speed. Other than a bit of a fish-eye effect that distorted the view a little, the video quality was sufficient enough to give a good sense of the space.
The ability to roam at will and talk to the agents using Beam gave a sense of an actual visit to the space.
Beam technology is still in its early days, said Erin Rapacki, director of marketing at Suitable Technologies. The company released Beam Pro in December 2012.
JMA Ventures is spearheading the firm’s entrance into real estate, Rapacki said. So far, the company has gained traction with small- and medium-sized companies by giving them an option for better video conferencing, she said.