When I was talking to one of the vendors — Zvi Band from Contactually — after Inman Connect New York (ICNY) in January, he told me that he noticed something interesting about the questions that agents and brokers were asking him this year.

  • 3-D and VR might not take off until an external influence drives consumers to adopt the hardware (headsets) to support real estate use.
  • Smart home devices are well on their way, but they come with risks that some consumers don't consider.
  • Bots could be the strongest area of potential for real estate.

When I was talking to one of the vendors — Zvi Band from Contactually — after Inman Connect New York (ICNY) in January, he told me that he noticed something interesting about the questions that agents and brokers were asking him this year.

“This time there were a lot of questions around: ‘What ROI [return on investment] have you been able to drive, what adoption rates do you have, who’s using it and what proof do you have?’”

He added that he thinks this indicates a coming of age in the real estate industry.

“I think in real estate, there’s been a lot of shiny object syndrome. There was a surprising backlash recently — meaning, ‘are all these tools I’m buying and this money I’m spending month over month — is it working out for me?'”

We saw three general areas of tech trends at ICNY this year.

Will these tools help your business — and how, exactly? Are they easy for agents to use, and will agents adopt them? What will they do for you?

3-D/virtual reality/augmented reality

As an industry, I think we’re still figuring out where to go with these tools.

So far, where I think 3-D has seen the greatest adoption among consumers is in the moviegoing crowd — and that 3-D is still pretty generic. I don’t know of any movie theaters who give headsets out, but maybe that just doesn’t happen in Denver!

Virtual and augmented reality, in my opinion, are tied to a different entertainment industry — gaming.

I think we saw the first step toward wide adoption of VR with the Nintendo Wii, of all things.

Remember how popular those were for a while? Today you don’t need a Wii to play a physically interactive video game; XBox and PlayStation have both come up with ways to incorporate this technology into their newer consoles for a one-stop gaming shop.

My husband isn’t even a “serious” gamer, but one of his favorite after-dark activities is to play Rocket League with his friends all over the country. (Before Rocket League it was Destiny, and before Destiny it was Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.)

Every time a new game comes out, somehow these men all know that it’s going to be their new thing — it’s like osmosis that spans states. Gradually each one of them acquires the game. (Until he does, all his spouse hears about, presumably, is how he can’t wait to play online with his friends again.)

What do you think will happen when the next “must play” game requires a VR headset? I’ll tell you right now: A video game is what’s going to get one of them into my household.

But until then, we’ve got this scenario where the technology exists, it’s getting pretty cool, but we could be in a bit of a trough or a dip when it comes to 3-D, VR and AR.

Do they have applications for real estate? Absolutely. Will we see those applications unfold? No doubt we will. But until there’s a VR headset in more homes in America than there are today, I don’t think we’re going to see great leaps and bounds forward in this area.

And when we do see great leaps and bounds forward, I think those steps of progress will be the result of other industries (most likely the video game industry) finally making something so incredibly cool that consumers see only one option: Buy a VR headset to experience it.

Smart home technology

At ICNY this year, for the first time, we had Hacker Connect, a day-long event on Monday for the real estate technology crowd.

Our keynote speaker was a woman named Molly Sauter, who’s working on a PhD about social activism and hacking. Hacktivism!

When the internet went down last October, it wasn’t just one or two sites, it was dozens. Well, that was caused by a DDoS attack — distributed denial of service.

She described in more vivid detail than I can exactly what happened, but the gist is that these attacks are implemented by overloading servers with requests. I imagine it might be similar to what might happen to your brain if you are surrounded by masses of people who are talking at you from every side — trying to discern one voice, let alone one message, is impossible when there are that many.

Sauter said that this attack was caused by a “botnet” — a network of devices that sent the bombardment of messages to the server. She also said that this botnet comprised devices other than computers — like webcams.

So think about what happens when the Amazon Echo becomes one of the most popular holiday gifts of the year, and when people start buying more than one for their home — an Echo Dot for every room!

And all of the things that Alexa can control are potentially problematic, too.

Sauter mentioned the Nest thermostat failure last January. People woke up to freezing homes because an update included a bug that drained the thermostat’s battery. The patch was a nine-step process that took three hours to recharge the Nest.

That’s inconvenient enough when it’s your own home, but if you own a vacation home in ski country, it’s a downright nightmare.

So smart home technology is coming of age, and it’s going to be huge, but there are some risks involved. Sauter mentioned a “smart” fridge that will take a picture of its contents every time you close the door. But if you store medication in the fridge, are those photographs being processed and stashed somewhere that’s compliant with privacy guidelines in HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act?

And do you have a spare fridge in your garage in case your main one crashes?

Speaking of privacy, did you know that Alexa is being subpoenaed in a murder case? What kind of conversations has your Echo heard you having, and are you sure you know who else could be listening?

This probably sounds like a lot of doomsday talk, but new technology absolutely does come with new risks. I heard from a real estate agent whose seller’s Echo picked up the upper limit of the price that one buyer was willing to pay, and talked them up to that limit, because the buyer’s agent and buyer had that conversation within “hearing” distance of a smart home device.

For real estate agents, I think that’s the big takeaway. Remember that even though this stuff is really cool, it also opens consumers — your clients — up to potential risk.

A thermostat or fridge might be something they are willing to take a risk on, but it probably pays to go old-school with smoke alarms, for example, until we’re more confident in the technology.

And any paranoid conspiracy theorists probably wouldn’t be interested in an Echo, anyway, but you might want to remind them that Alexa does log conversations! (And not to talk about price — ever — in a house they’re considering purchasing.)

Bots

Speaking of Alexa, she is a fine example of what I think is the most exciting technology for real estate right now: Bots.

What’s a bot? Well, here’s how I learned about them.

One day, I was on Facebook and I got sucked into an ad for shoes. The company that makes them is called Tieks, and its Facebook game is pretty on point; there were ads all over my feed that week for these shoes, so I clicked.

I’m still not entirely sure how this next part happened — I think I used my Facebook account to create a Tieks profile for payment, but they might have tracked me from the ad. At any rate, I bought some shoes, and my phone buzzed immediately with a notification.

It was a Facebook message from Tieks thanking me for my order and summarizing it. About an hour later, I got another one — even more exciting! — telling me that my shoes had been shipped and including a tracking code.

I felt like I had just found the holy grail, and here’s why: My personal email account is a total mess. I have cleaned it up a little bit since then, but I had — I am not kidding — more than 20,000 unread emails in my inbox.

How easy do you think it is for me to find a shipping notification when Amazon sends it to my email?

The fact that I got an immediate notification — my phone buzzed! — when my shoes were purchased and shipped (and when they were delivered, too, a few days later), in a place where I was already hanging out (Facebook) instead of a place where I only go when I have to (email) — was, to me, absolutely amazing.

Then I started digging into how this was done and realized that Facebook has opened up its Messenger platform to developers, so that they can create products like this for their own company. And that’s when I learned that a bot had sent my notification.

How does this apply to real estate?

A bot is, for lack of a better descriptor, a computer program that is designed to have a conversation with a human.

I know of one broker who’s built a bot to help with the home search process. If you’re home shopping in Denver, you can create an account on his website and indicate homes you like, and the bot will suggest more homes for you based on some of the features you seem to prioritize.

We created an experiment at Inman where we pitted this bot against three humans and asked them to pick homes for a third-party judge. We ran the experiment for three days, and it worked like this: John Rebchook, a real estate writer in Denver, spent a few minutes every day looking for a house he liked. He used Zillow, realtor.com and Trulia for his search.

Rebchook sent me the link to the house. I grabbed the MLS number and, at the same predetermined time every day, I sent the MLS number to three different brokers in Denver as well as to the bot. Their mission was to find three properties similar to the one Rebchook had picked, hoping to please this fickle “buyer.” They had a limited amount of time in which to do this, and they sent the listings back to me when they were finished.

I took those properties, scrambled them up and sent them all to Rebchook, asking him to rank them in order from favorite to least favorite.

The bot outperformed the broker at this task all three days — but I think that’s far from the end of the story (or of the real estate agent).

Property search bots are kind of sexy and cool — however, I actually used the bot in this experiment for my own home search, and it didn’t deliver the house I ended up buying. I found it myself!

Trulia has a rental Facebook bot right now that will find you a rental home. If you open up Facebook Messenger and search “Trulia,” you can start a conversation with the bot and tell it your desired ZIP code, home size and price range, and it will either deliver options for you or tell you (nicely!) that you are too picky.

There are bots that can qualify your leads and answer their questions. Alexa is a bot, too, and another Colorado broker built an Alexa app that (when you enable the skill) can give you a home valuation estimate.

And Inman has a bot! It’s called Carey (developed by AgentPair founder Clark Giguiere), and it sends out our headlines every day via Facebook Messenger. As Carey becomes more intelligent, you will be able to ask our bot for, say, the latest realtor.com news or stories about lead generation, and it will deliver them to your Messenger inbox.

I think that this is the biggest area of opportunity for real estate. Like any service industry, the conversations you have with your clients probably sound pretty similar at the beginning of the process; it’s when you really get the real estate ball moving that they will need more specific information for their situation.

Bots can take some of the conversational burden off your shoulders for those early, monotonous exchanges.

The rate of tech adoption is speeding up. Remember the VR and smart home lessons — don’t invest too quickly in the shiny new toys (with potential unintended consequences) — but keep your eyes on the things that will help your business grow.

Email Amber Taufen

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