In March this year Villawood Properties launched what it is describing as the world’s first virtual display village. Utilising an Oculus Rift headset and hand-held controllers, the technology allows users to visit the location of a new development and not just look at the room layout of a building, but wander outside and get a feel for the layout of the whole neighbourhood. Villawood Properties executive director, Rory Costelloe and the project’s facilitator Jamie Hopwood tell us more.
By Madeleine Swain
Better Building: Where did the original idea spring from for the technology?
Rory Costelloe: We identified the virtual display village as a way to build stronger relationships with our builder partners, by providing a vehicle for them to engage with purchasers much earlier in the process of buying land and building a home. It can take up to 18 months from the launch of a community and land becoming available through to the opening of a physical display. With the virtual display village we can be working with builders in the lead-up to launching community so that from the moment the sales office opens, purchasers can explore both the lot they may buy as well as a selection of homes they could build on that lot.
How long did it take to develop?
RC: Approximately six months – as this is a new application of technology, it took some time to finesse the product to the point we wanted to engage collaborators. A prototype of a single home and part of the Rathdowne streetscape was presented to a selection of Australia’s most forward-thinking builders and from there it became a matter of ‘building’ each of our collaborator’s homes in the virtual world and refining each to the point they were happy to unveil.
Were there any challenges or obstacles along the way?
Jamie Hopwood: As with anything new and innovative, it was an ongoing process of learning, as you’re constantly testing the capabilities of existing technology to see where you can push it further and evolve.
In terms of overcoming obstacles, there was a lot of collaboration between Villawood and the builders and me – we knew the outcome we wanted to achieve, it was a matter of putting heads together and sharing ideas of how we got there.
What’s the ‘big idea’ of the technology?
RC: While various iterations of virtual reality (VR) have been used by the property sector to market their products, most have been utilising 360 photography or videography of existing spaces or structures, simply viewed through a VR headset. This is the first time CGI (computer generated imagery) paired with an Oculus Rift set-up has been utilised in this way, delivering the closest comparable experience to exploring a physical display village the property industry has seen.
The limitations of previous 360 VR technology meant that a user could only experience a 360-degree view from the physical position of a camera, and then ‘jump’ from one viewpoint to the next. Their perspective is limited to a fixed camera viewpoint, and the content designer determines the narrative of the user journey.
Whereas, a true virtual reality experience can almost seem limitless. Instead of simply looking around, a viewer can move around (virtually) and interact with the environment in a seemingly real way – each journey is unique to that user.
How will it help builders and property developers in their businesses?
RC: Where a display village in the physical world can take years from planning to delivery, a virtual display could be completed in a much shorter time-frame and for a fraction of the cost. This offers builders agility in testing home designs that have never been built before, along with enabling them to quickly respond to shifting consumer feedback, needs and demands.
The virtual display village also encourages innovation and creativity, presenting builders with the opportunity to showcase a diverse range of designs as there is less financial risk associated with developing virtual home designs.
From a developer’s perspective, the virtual display village will allow us to give customers better guidance around the size and type of home suitable for their block of land, which in turn provides greater choice and convenience in selecting their home.
Particularly in the greenfields space, a virtual display village provides an opportunity to give an immersive demonstration of the future landscape of a community and convey the placemaking elements that will make each project unique. We can’t wait to roll this out across future communities!
What are the current applications for the technology?
RC: To date this type of immersive, explorable VR has been predominantly used in VR gaming and this is the first time it has been used to create a display village that homebuyers can explore as they research and consider builders.
How will you address people becoming disoriented by using the headsets?
JH: Like any new technology or user experience, it can take some getting used to. The user is in complete control with the VR headset and, if they’re not loving the experience, they can take it off and the effects are generally short-lived.
RC: We’ve given the user experience a lot of thought and have refurbished the Rathdowne sales office so that customers can explore the virtual display village in absolute comfort. Staff at our Rathdowne sales office are well-equipped to ensure the customer experience is a positive one.
Or using the headsets incorrectly? Is there a concern that the novelty will soon wear off?
JH: There is very little room for human error in the set-up.
RC: As a younger generation of home-buyers comes through, we wanted to be adaptive to the type of technology they are engaging with.
The response from builders and wider industry has been positive and we have plans in place for future iterations.
The fact that a virtual display can save our builder partners a significant amount of time and money makes us confident that the technology will have a staying power. It provides greater opportunity for creativity and innovation – and the ability to test in an active market – with far less of a financial risk than building a bricks and mortar display.
This is only the starting point and there is so much scope for additional elements that can further evolve the user experience.
What about cost? How expensive will this technology be?
RC: Like any new technology, the cost comes down as it becomes more mainstream.
Main picture: Villawood Properties VR launch, March 2018 (L-R Jamie Hogwood, Minister for Housing Richard Wynne, Rory Costello, Seb Chan)