Virtual reality helps sell real estate

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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The presentation appeared to be going splendidly. A hushed theatre packed with Japanese bankers reverberated to the fury of a full-blown multi-media show about the new office complex. Slide machines chattered, music soared and a Richard Burton clone cast hypnotic nets with a deeply convincing commentary.  In dark shadows at the rear, however, a sales team was quietly going bananas.  The clone was hypnotising in French. Someone had pressed the wrong button but there was no way to stop.

  High-tech marketing can be tricky. One analyst remembers preening over an  investment briefing where complex  charts and tables were conveniently encapsulated on floppies for fund managers to take away.  'Then someone  pointed out  that the litter bin outside the office overflowing with computer disks,' he says. Both technology and attitudes have moved on, however. A PC on every desk means disks are now accepted currency. William Hill of Schroder Properties has doled out more than a thousand as mementoes of video-based briefings given on a dozen or so projects.

  Even though they are drawn from a video-based presentation and TV commercial, he thinks  people are more likely to scan  a disk than look for a tape player.   Whatever the medium, they all  help  bring buildings to investors rather than vice versa, says Hill. Schroder has a shopping centre in Hartlepool which would be unlikely to attract  investors all the way from London. Instead, they get their own desktop show.

  But the cutting edge of technology is helping bridge a bigger gulf - selling buildings that do not even exist. Today's market is geared to pre-letting, and anything that nudges tenants into action before buildings are complete is a bonus. Virtual reality is threatening to consign  misbehaving slide projectors and  static drawings  to history's dustbin.

 A supersonic jet soars down into the Helicon, London & Manchester's 11,600m2 (125,000 sq ft) office block on the northern fringes of the City, ducking and weaving through corridors and plant rooms. The clever merging of video and virtual reality is meant to make viewers gasp.   'The flying sequence grabs their attention,' admits Colin Hargreaves of Healey & Baker. An audience of gossiping agents or wary  tenants  falls quickly into the grasp of a discreet black box hidden behind the large screen.  Video clips, virtual graphics and detailed tables can then be manipulated at will.

  Hargreaves remembers with a shudder the way chattering slide projectors could go wrong, and droning commentary  separated salesman from customer. The current setup, run from a hidden hard disk and remote control avoids that trap. 'I can  see people's faces around the table and freeze it when someone asks a question - or appears to be  going to sleep,' he says.

  Multiple 'buttons' on the screen open specialised areas of information. A facilities manager, for instance, can see video clips showing assembly and testing of the Helicon's futuristic services. Another 'button' moves into detailed technical analysis.    The  show - which can be tailored to a few minutes or more than an hour  - was developed by designers Sutton Young to meet a special need. London & Manchester was persuaded by advisers McLean Aylwin  to reassure tenants about the chilled ceiling air-conditioning, an unusual service that might add to nervousness over a still-unfinished building.

  'This system aims to make people more comfortable by answering every potential question,' says Hargreaves. 'It is also flexible enough for us to add information as new questions arise.'   But  this slick, showbizzy technique has gone beyond special cases. Hargreaves is using a similar presentation  on a smaller block in Cheapside.

'It is the ideal vehicle for anything that has not yet come out of the ground,' says Robert Game of MEPC, which has drawn its  office development at Petershill, opposite St Paul's Cathedral, in cyberspace. Games relies even more heavily on computer-generated images, sending  an imaginary camera swooping and  peering through virtual windows at as-yet-unbuilt floors.

  The hardware is also slightly different, as it involves a combination of video and photo-CD player with up to 600 shots of the proposed development.  It  is just as flexible, however, as the operator can stop and branch into areas of special interest to particular viewers. 'It can also be updated quickly as the building progresses,' says Hans Chu of BDG McColl, which designed and produced the show.   The same applies to the video which visitors can take away.  CD-ROMs would be the ideal, says Game, but he  points out that while the industry may have a PC on  every desk, ROM players are still as rare as hen's teeth.

 MEPC has learned from the over-indulgence of glitzy past presentations and has kept its approach tightly focused. But agents are moving  into areas where directing talents are as important as market knowledge.   'Any architect can produce an animated walkthough but you also need  a degree of theatricality,' says Peter Russell of Rosswood Computer Services.

  The firm, which  recently helped pre-sell 60% of a housing scheme in Pimlico with a computer-generated presentation shipped to the Far East, has specialists to interpret drawings. But the firm is also knee-deep in animators with roots firmly in show business.   It is now working on a much larger scheme involving proposals for one of the country's largest shopping developments. This kind of approach, aimed at planners and public nervous about the visual impact of development, could be a major growth area for virtual techniques. It will require special presentational skills.

  Hans Chu  insists that spectacle is no substitute for accuracy, however. 'There is a lot of rubbish being produced by people who cannot read drawings, ' he says. The WYSIWYG principle is paramount - what you see is what you get, and that demands a producer with technical qualifications.

  How effective is all this wizzery at selling, though?   The mere fact that time and money  has gone into a multi-media show can be important, says Charles Stevens of Allsop & Co. 'When dealing with a property that has not yet been produced, you have to convey the impression of reliability - that it [ITALIC]will[END ITAL] be produced. 'Going to these lengths -  and showing believable images - are more  bricks in the wall of trust.' he says.

  Stevens carries  around presentations of two Aquis Estates buildings in Reading and Maidenhead on a laptop computer. This can also be plugged into a larger monitor. But he says running off CD-ROM will become more common as the industry advances.   'The sort of high-tech tenants we are approaching expect this sophistication, as it is the norm in their business. It also matches the image of the sexy buildings they want.'

  The British disease is the major factor  in growth of multi-media, however.  'We are too apt in this country  to disbelieve a building will work,' says Hargreaves. 'Even when demonstrated this comprehensively, people are cynical. But it does give extra credibility and opens their minds a little.'

  Like a new toy, high-tech presentations  also get you noticed. 'It is easier to open doors when people know you are offering something like this,' says Stevens.   Hargreaves would prefer to be a little less popular. 'I get half a dozen calls a week from rival agents and developers who want to come in and pick up ideas,' he says.   William Hill has the most hard-headed approach, combining  enthusiasm  with caution. 'The important thing is not to be seduced into using technology for its own sake,' he says. The operator's commentary may be in the right language, but futuristic presentations are no substitute for good products.


Rosswood: 'How long is a piece of string,' says Peter Russell.  'A hole in the ground may cost £12,000 to animate but we did a short  walkthrough for Sears to show the inside of a proposed Adams shop which cost about £6,000. But that showed designers that a wall was in the wrong place, which saved them even more.'

Healey & Baker: This emphasis on balancing off costs can come even earlier. The Helicon show cost close to £100,000 - about a quarter of that going on the virtual flythrough.  'But we have not needed to produce a full pre-letting brochure,' says Colin Hargreaves. This has clawed back a large amount of outlay.  It also has to be set against the alternative of an audio-visual display (around £50,000), a full brochure (£40,000) and a technical pack (£10,000)

MEPC: The Petershill presentation cost around £50,000, although £12,000 of that went on equipment, says Robert Games. Paperwork has also been reduced because there is less need for intricate  visual detail.   A five-minute video works out at between £25,000 and  £40,000 - depending on the amount of animation, says  Hans Chu of producer BDG McColl. Extra work updating  could run to no more than a few hundred pounds.

Allsop & Co: The overall budget for Aquis House was actually cut  because the new techniques have enabled a more tightly focused approach. 'We are not taking full-page adverts every quarter as the building progresses and have produced fewer brochures,' says Charles Stevens of Allsops.   The presentation has, instead, enabled marketing to be  targeted at the most likely tenants. 'In reality, the building is probably of interest to only a dozen firms in the Thames Valley.' Showing beyond this group has as spin-off advantage, however, as it puts others in the frame for future developments.