Courtesy Focus 360

Virtual reality technology, which allow builders to help buyers visualize a home before it's built, has taken off in recent years.

Steve Ormonde, co-founder of architectural visualization firm Focus 360, has been producing computer-generated and virtual reality imagery for home builders for the last 28 years. Here, BUILDER talks with Ormonde about the fast pace of advancements. Click here to check out one of his VR tours.

How has VR use by builders evolved over the years?
For several decades now, “virtual reality” in home building has been used very loosely to describe imagery you can interact with. Quicktime VR (developed by Apple) was one of the first commercially available technologies in the mid 90’s that allowed us to “stitch” photos or computer generated imagery together in a spherical panoramic format, to give the viewer the impression of standing in a space and looking around 360 degrees. iPix and others leveraged this concept and created special cameras to take 360 degree photos in the late 90’s.

Fast forward to 2014 and the introduction of Google Cardboard. Using the same technique, but applying it to stereoscopic viewers, a dramatic step is taken towards “immersive” VR. This is the primary technology (in various forms like Samsung Gear powered by Oculus) currently being used by home builders. But it still isn’t what I consider true virtual reality.

In what ways are builders using VR today?
There are two primary uses of the panoramic style VR that I mentioned above being used: 1) photography based experiences and 2) computer generated (CG) experiences. The former is getting quite a bit of traction right now through technologies like Matterport. They are what I consider a modern version of iPix, using a camera to photograph an existing environment and special software to move through the space. But it is limited to real world environments. The CG experiences don’t require the environments to be built which gives builders a huge advantage to pre-market their properties. And since it is computer generated, there is a tremendous amount of flexibility in what is presented, such as various structural options or cabinet selections. And not only homes! Developers are using the technology to market the amenities of a new master planned community.

Can you give some specific examples of builders using VR?
Brookfield Homes just launched the community of Rancho Tesoro in San Diego from a mall kiosk! Shoppers can tour three computer-generated model homes using Samsung’s Gear VR technology. And our client, TriPointe Homes, recently launched two communities in Dublin, Calif., Onyx and Slate at Jordan Ranch, with six virtual models using Google Cardboard which has the added benefit of web delivery. These homes can be toured by anyone with a GC type viewer.

What are the costs involved?
The photo-based solutions are relatively inexpensive. The Matterport example is under $1,000 per home. For the CG solution, most of the cost is building the CG model. Builders will spend around $5k for an average production home.

What is the future of VR for home builders?
As you can see from my comments above, technically we haven’t come very far in the last 20 years. However, every builder needs to take this technology seriously because we are on the precipice of a visualization revolution. Consumers are warming up to the idea of using VR thanks to the advances in the gaming industry (ie Oculus) and mainstream media. Look for true virtual reality to kick in later this year, using CG models to not just tour environments from one point, but to freely navigate and interact with the homes.