Real Estate

Augmented Reality Is Coming for the Real Estate Industry

Sotheby’s Curate app aims to dispense with staging.
Source: Sotheby's

For around $7 million, 481 Greenwich Street #5B is about to come on the market. The downtown New York loft has been gut renovated, and its approximately 3,300 square feet are what brokers like to call “turnkey,” meaning that you could buy it and move in without having to do any work.

And since it’s without furniture, the apartment is also the ideal place to try out Sotheby’s new augmented reality app, “Curate by Sotheby’s International Realty.”

The app, built with Google’s new augmented-reality software platform ARCore, allows both buyers and brokers to “virtually stage” an apartment, filling it with a variety of bedrooms sets, couches, dining rooms, home office sets, and so forth. Augmented reality overlays the digital on the physical, as opposed to virtual reality, which creates entirely new worlds (and is getting boosted by video games and Steven Spielberg). It’s like using Pokémon Go to catch a Le Corbusier couch.

Still, as opposed to other AR features that can feel gimmicky (putting on a Snapchat mask from The Lion King on Broadway is not exactly solving an existing problem in a marketplace), Sotheby’s Curate app addresses a real issue: If brokers aren’t interested in spending thousands of dollars to stage an apartment with furniture, prospective buyers can have a hard time visualizing a room’s actual size—and consequently, visualizing themselves in the home.

“There’s a cost to physical staging,” says John Passerini, the global vice president of interactive marketing at Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC. “And there’s even an environmental impact to it—carting [the furnishings] from one apartment to another. Plus, you can’t do things on the fly. Once you choose a physical staging set, that’s it, so if a client doesn’t like the modern furniture you’ve chosen, too bad.”

In the case of the Greenwich Street apartment, its broker, the Stein Team at Sotheby’s International Realty, still plans to traditionally stage the unit, but only part of it. This a sufficiently costly apartment, and a large enough space, that it’s worth their while. But before they do so, the Curate app can theoretically offer a viable alternative.

Testing the App

On a recent weekday morning at the Greenwich Street loft, Passerini gives a demo of the app. In the bedroom, he takes out his Android phone (the app will be available for iOS in late May), turns on the app, and points it at a blank, white wall. After very briefly measuring the dimensions of the room, the phone seamlessly drops in a bedroom set, replete with a queen-sized bed, nightstands, and lamps.

Source: Sotheby's International Realty

Users can walk around the bed, holding the phone, and envision how much space they’d have. They can stand by the headboard and size up the distance from the footboard to the door (ample, in this case), and even get a fairly reasonable sense as to how the ceiling height feels, from the vantage point of the pillows.

The app allows users to toggle between “modern” and “traditional” furniture styles. In an attempt to further its utility, Sotheby’s has partnered with various furniture companies; if the app’s users like the objects on their phones, they can click through to the retailers’ websites.

Competitors, Issues

The app is the first of its kind to be released by a real estate company, but it’s not the first of its kind on the market. Ikea has a surprisingly functional AR app that invites you to do the same thing, with the exception being that you’re putting in only Ikea furniture. Houzz Inc., the home decor company, offers something similar, as do Overstock.com Inc., Lowe’s Companies Inc., and Williams-Sonoma, Inc.’s Pottery Barn.

The Sotheby’s app, though, doesn’t quite address the one conceptual hurdle it’s meant to solve, because it allows you to put only a single “set” into a room at a time. If, say, you’re confronted by the massive, open-concept living/dining room in 481 Greenwich Street, you’ll be able to put only a dining set, a living room set, or a home office set. Using just one is fine, but it won’tfill the room, leaving users back where they started. They can’t use the app to determine a room’s scale.

Passerini says that by late May, the app will be updated to allow users to break up the furniture sets and spread them around a room, which, in theory, should resolve that issue. In its current iteration, he says, the app works best for agents, not prospective buyers.

“We’re thinking the first-use case is more for the agents,” he explains, “so they can curate the full set. Then, down the road for consumers, they can break up the set and design and play with it.”

He stresses that the Curate app is in its earliest stage, and that the “sky’s the limit” because the technology has just evolved. “We’re the first real estate company to step into this world,” he says. “The textures—and ability to do these things—are really here for the first time.”

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