Engel & Völkers’ downtown Minneapolis branch was pondering what to do with a windowless space when inspiration struck — it would make the perfect spot for potential buyers to grab a pair of goggles and vet as many as 30 homes in a matter of hours. With reclining arm chairs and special lighting, the VR theater could also bring family and friends along for a big-screen experience.

The moment I put on the Oculus Rift headset, I felt like I was inside one of Engel & Völkers’ listings.

It only took a few seconds to master and then I was free to roam the house, admiring the tray ceilings in the dining room, wandering into the cozy den, ascending the stairs and meandering through each of the spacious bedrooms.

All of this unfolded in the virtual reality “theater” located within real estate franchisor Engel & Völkers’ downtown Minneapolis office. In July, the agency was pondering what to do with a windowless space when inspiration struck — it would make the perfect spot for potential buyers to grab a pair of goggles and vet as many as 30 homes in a matter of hours.

With reclining arm chairs and special lighting (everything but the popcorn), the VR theater could also bring family and friends along for the experience by projecting the view from inside the headset onto a 100-inch big screen.

VR’s allure: Convenience, speed and marketing

The brainchild of Geoffrey Bray, license partner for the Minneapolis branch, and executed by the brokerage’s tech-savvy director of operations, Chris Peterson, the VR theater came to life within three months of its conception.

Engel & Völkers claims this theater is a first-of-its-kind experience for the state of Minnesota.

Virtual reality still remains a fringe benefit to real estate consumers and is often accompanied by real life tours, but brokers in recent years have leveraged the tool to introduce buyers to homes, setting up headset stations in their offices for clients. In his Greensboro, North Carolina, office, broker-owner Larry Story has the Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR on tap, for example. Clients can use either headset to wander about lifelike tours that Story captures for his listings using Matterport’s 3-D camera.

The technology can also prove valuable for clients who’d like to avoid the inconvenience of a dozen agents coming into their home while still garnering attention for their property, as was the case for the Coldwell Banker agents in Cleveland who turned a luxury home broker open into a virtual reality happy hour.

Bray told Inman that the office is seeing a “steady flow” of people come through the theater, with three or four reservations for the space from the company’s real estate advisors per week who are in some cases also showing it off to builders, developers and lenders as a business “value-add.”

“As we turn the page on the 2017 calendar and head into the 2018 spring market, we anticipate it being a very busy place, bringing dozens and dozens of clients and customers in to our downtown location,” Bray said.

Experiencing a home on a summer day when it’s 7 degrees

Engel & Völkers invited me to experience the theater first hand, and it was surreal.

I toured two separate homes, the first time on my own and the second with one of the agents talking me through the different features. The Engel & Völkers agents are able to act as personal guides to the person wearing the Oculus Rift because the big screen in the room gives the outside world a view of what’s happening inside the headset.

It’s a little disorienting at first, realizing you can turn a full 360 degrees and never run out of house to experience. The trickiest parts were getting the headset tight enough to keep the images crisp, and managing the initial navigation.

The latter involved training your gaze on circles to move from one room to the next, rather than actually walking throughout the home (a feature the company plans to add in the future).

Having someone point out where to look and how to navigate the different rooms made for a much more complete tour. Without that guidance, it can be difficult to know where to gaze given that you can explore every nook and cranny of the home. Without someone leading the way, it’s also easy to exit a room and accidentally turn back around and enter it again.

In the second home, with the help of my guide, I was able to walk onto the deck and check out the pool on a warm summer day, quite the feat considering Minneapolis dipped to 7 degrees Fahrenheit that morning.

This was a benefit I hadn’t considered before going through the process. People shopping for homes in the winter can still experience outdoor spaces at their summer best, which might actually extend peak real estate season.

Of course the technology is also incredibly useful for people looking to purchase property in a different city, but even those who live locally can save a great deal of time, narrowing down contenders without having to drive 15 to 30 minutes between each listing.

There are other options agents can use to give homebuyers a virtual experience, including 3-D tours and Google Cardboard — in March Engel & Völkers announced a partnership with immoviewer to equip each brokerage in their North American network with VR tech, namely, Ricoh Theta cameras and Google Cardboard glasses — but none are as immersive as the Oculus Rift theater.

Upon resurfacing after my tour, suddenly, there were three other people in the room and a post was standing where an open doorway had just been. It’s no wonder people who typically spend seven to 10 seconds perusing listings online are now spending up to seven minutes in each virtual home.

Engel & Völkers Minneapolis Downtown plans to have every one of their listings ready for a VR tour by the end of 2018, and with the engagement they’ve been getting, I imagine it won’t be long before others follow suit.

A little left-brained, a little right-brained, Eliza Green is a Minneapolis writer who blends these traits together to connect with readers across a number of industries. She has spent much of her career writing about business, finance, marketing and digital media. Follow her Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.  

Email Inman.

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