Visualising your new home - in your hands

PHOTO: Visualising your new home - in your hands
These chic translucent blocks are not child's play, but the backdrop of a cool augmented reality (AR) application. When viewed with an iPad, they showcase seven building technologies with 3D animation.

Imagine being able to study the floor plans of a yet-to-be- built property you want to buy in a 3-D format, and to actually see the views from each of the rooms and the direction of the sunlight streaming in - right on the palm of your hands.

You will also be able to discuss your choice unit with relatives and friends, or even seek the opinions of property experts at your own convenience and without having to make multiple trips to the showflat.

This could soon be a reality here, as hand-held devices' capabilities increase and more players in the property industry, such as developers and building agencies, jump on the augmented-reality (AR) bandwagon to better market their projects.

Sources told my paper that, for the first time, a major home-grown private property developer, who wishes to remain unknown, has commissioned AR technology to be used in the launch of its developments.

This follows the introduction of a mobile app, Property Buddy, by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and SingTel last July.

The app leverages on AR to help users find information on property prices, simply by pointing their cellphone's camera in the direction of nearby residences. The information is pulled up in real time from URA's database and includes latest transacted prices and available properties within a 3km radius.

In May, the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA) also used AR to showcase some of its best building practices during the BuildTechAsia trade show.

Those who visited the BCA booth could use an iPad to scan an AR card. This would trigger images and information boxes to pop up onscreen. The visitors could then better understand how these technologies can be used to enhance productivity.

Experts explain that with AR, consumers can have a live, real-time perspective of their physical environment via digitised sensory inputs. These include sound, graphics, video or/and location-based data.

Consumers simply use a processor with AR-reading capabilities combined with 3-D tracking - such as those found in the built-in cameras of advanced smartphones - to scan a physical environment Mr Donald Lim, chief executive of experiential media agency Digimagic, predicts that by 2014, all smartphones here will be equipped with AR-reading capabilities and much higher data- processing power.

At the same time, AR technology is advancing from simply reading off a 2-D surface (such as a brochure) to recognising 3-D objects (such as large-scale building models) in the real world.

Hence, Mr Lim thinks the use of AR will become more popular in another couple of years.

This will also have an impact on the way property can be marketed. Developers need only provide potential buyers with a card printed with the layout of specific housing-unit types in the development.

The buyers can then assess, at their own time, which unit they should purchase.

If AR could really help to boost property sales, why have property developers here been slow in adopting the technology?

The high cost is a big reason.

Depending on factors like the size of the project and how developers want buyers to be able to interact with the model, the cost of incorporating AR into a project could set developers back by a five- to six-figure sum.

This is on top of the S$30,000 to S$60,000 the developers would probably have spent on coming up with the actual 3-D model of the development which they typically place in their showflats.

Mr Timothy Seow, managing partner at experiential media firm, said that outside Europe, AR is still relatively new.

"A lot of people still do not know about it or understand how it works, leading to many companies not having the budget to leverage on it.

"It's also about remaining in their comfort zone. Traditional advertising media, like print, is familiar to them and work."

However, AR could actually bring cost savings to developers if they intend to market the project overseas, said Mr Seow.

This is because the intricately designed large-scale 3-D models tend to be fragile and are prone to being damaged during transportation.

Mr Liu Yang, executive director of Dreamarvel, an experiential media firm which focuses strongly on the property sector, said that bigger developers here are the ones who are more likely to embrace AR.

They are also likely to be selective about which projects to incorporate AR in, he said, adding that these would probably be the larger-scale developments which would justify the high cost.

One market opportunity that Mr Liu Yang has his eyes on is the potential housing over-supply, which property experts forecast would hit Singapore over the next three years as more projects are completed.

"Developers can make use of the novelty of AR to establish a strong branding for their projects," he said.

"But they cannot rely on the wow factor in the long term," he added.

"They need to look at the functional aspects of AR, especially how the technology would add value to the buyer's purchasing decision."