Virtual Reality

VR Entrepreneurs Rethink Real Estate, Retail and Education

VR entrepreneurs
by Jason Johnson
Freelance writer and editor

VR entrepreneurs open doors for real estate, retail and education leaders to offer immersive, interactive digital experiences.

On paper, architect Ignacio Rodriguez designed a gorgeous Hollywood Hills home, but the potential owner couldn’t envision how the multi-million dollar abode would look after it was built. Rather than hitting the drawing board, Rodriguez turned to his computer and built the house in virtual reality (VR) so his client could experience what it was like “living” there.

“After walking around the house in VR, the client bought it three days later,” said Rodriguez, CEO of IR Architects, speaking at the 2017 VRLA expo in Los Angeles. More than 170 companies gathered to show new uses for VR technologies.

While VR attracts attention through immersive games and entertainment, the technology is proving beneficial for a growing number of commercial uses. At VRLA, experts in real estate, retail, healthcare, education and other industries explained their experimentation with VR.

“Even though the market is being driven by gaming today, we expect commercial VR to be 50 percent of the market as soon as the next five years,” said Kumar Chinnaswamy, director of commercial VR in Intel’s Client Computing Group.

“Awareness of augmented reality (AR) and VR has significantly increased because companies see the immediate benefits the technology provides,” he said, adding that it could create new business models. “The tech can reduce product design risks, offer new ways to engage customers and enable immersive training methods.”

Goldman Sachs estimates the market for VR and AR could grow into a $128 billion market by 2025.

A New Way to Imagine Dream Homes

After closing the deal on the Hollywood Hills home, Rodriguez now demonstrates all of his property designs as VR experiences, built using Unreal Engine, a popular game development tool. Business at his L.A.-based architectural firm has been booming ever since.

Rodriguez said the benefit of designing homes in VR is that clients know in advance exactly what the home will look like. If the fireplace is in the wrong place, he said, they can simply move it.

“The feedback is amazing,” he said. “The clients get to experience the house and make changes to the design before anybody builds anything.”

Having this feedback early, instead of in the middle of construction, is crucial.

IR Architects specialize in modern homes with huge price tags, ranging from $3 million to $22 million, including Beverly Hills mansions. Rodriguez said stalling a project for revisions can quickly result in a huge loss.

The immersive technology isn’t just for the high-end real estate market. Show My Property TV, a digital agency specializing in apartment marketing, uses VR to create virtual tours of rental properties. Potential tenants can inspect living quarters from anywhere in the world.

Reinventing Retail Spaces

Even retail stores are looking to VR as a way to jazz up the shopping experience. It could help retailers blend real world and digital buying experiences as they struggle to attract and retain shoppers.

“[It’s important for] developers in the commercial space to focus on solving a business’s problems,” said Chinnaswamy.

Mark Hardy, CEO of InContext, works with many retail and restaurant chains, including Walmart and Starbucks, to help remodel and optimize shelf space.

His team goes into a store and snaps thousands of photos of the products, while measuring the store’s dimensions with laser rangefinder technology. This information helps them build an exact replica of the store. The pieces snap apart like Lego blocks, allowing retailers to freely design new layouts without the overhead costs of physically building a retail space.

VR to design inside of a store.
VR helps design new layouts without physically building the space. Image courtesy of InContext.

Merchandisers can put on a headset and see their ideas immediately, before they roll plans out nationwide. For example, Starbucks used the VR application to find the counter arrangement that would best convey a cozy small-business atmosphere.

“Consumers are tired of shopping at stores that are distribution centers,” said Hardy. “The challenge for retailers is that they’re becoming experience centers like Apple Stores and Tesla.”

He said VR is even changing how merchandisers do marketing research. To test the quality of a new store design, for example, retailers can study the shopping behaviors of people using the VR simulation. This gives retailers the freedom to explore store layouts that break the mold.

VR in Anatomy Classrooms

If VR can engage and educate shoppers, why not use it to train future doctors? That’s what Blausen Medical does with its vast portfolio of award-winning medical animations.

Students traditionally learn about body structures from images in books, but Blausen Medical’s illustrations expand to enormous sizes that can be experienced from different angles in VR.

The app positions the VR user right in the center of the human anatomy animation. The viewer sees and feels what it’s like to be the size of an atom, as proteins and molecules tower above then undulate from side to side.

“Once you have the experience of interacting with the animation in VR, you can’t go back to the textbook,” said Bruce Blausen, the company’s CEO and founder.

VR of skeletal muscles
VR allows students to explore human anatomy. Image courtesy of Blausen Medical.

Blausen’s VR imagery provides practical applications for education. According to Intel’s Chinnaswamy, “Early research has shown that students who learn in VR score more than 25 percent higher than those learning by traditional methods. Gamification of learning in VR will further change the landscape of education over the next decade.”

Blausen Medical’s first VR model captures the complexities of a human’s skeletal muscle contractions. Eventually, the company plans to convert its entire library of medical animations into VR, including tours through the inner ear, the cardiovascular system and even explorations of diseases in the body.

These VR apps will primarily be sold to universities and medical institutions, helping future doctors better understand the functions of the body.

From real estate to retail to healthcare education, the commercial uses of VR are expanding as access to the technology grows. By creating immersive experiences, industry leaders are poised to shape a future where real and digital worlds merge.

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