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The LUMA residential project in Seattle is among the projects using virtual reality. Image: Studio216

Buying a condo or leasing a new office space can be a giant and costly decision — and it’s all the more difficult when the building doesn’t yet exist.

But what if you could tour the space before it’s built? Real estate developers and leasing agents are turning to virtual reality to let prospective buyers experience a space even when a building is still under construction, or has yet to break ground.

The capability is being fueled by the rise of Oculus and other virtual reality headsets. The trend was on full display at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and Mobile World Congress in Spain this week, with companies including Valve, HTC, Sony and many others showing new (and improved) virtual reality technologies, boasting higher frame rates and untethered systems that make the experience more realistic.

That’s especially important for games. But the use of virtual reality by the real estate industry is an example of the technology’s potential to expand into many other areas of business and life.

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Boaz Ashkenazy and Jamie Fleming of Studio216, which creates VR experiences for real estate projects.

“It’s a convergence of what gaming people have been doing for a long time, with architectural visualization, bringing those two worlds together,” said Boaz Ashkenazy, founding partner of Studio216. The digital production agency has expanded its real estate business beyond static renderings, first to interactive apps and now to immersive VR experiences.

In the Studio216 offices in Seattle last week, I donned an Oculus headset for a virtual tour of Park Tower, a new building planned for San Francisco’s Transbay neighborhood, slated to open in 2018, with more than 700,000 square feet of office and retail space. I navigated the virtual space easily, moving my head to peek into every corner of the floor, and getting a realistic sense for the size of the space and the distance from wall to wall.

The experience even showed the future view out a window from that particular floor, thanks to some clever use of aerial drone photography.

Here’s a video from Studio216, providing a sense for what the virtual reality experience is like for Park Tower and another project, LUMA, a residential tower planned in Seattle.

In addition to giving prospective tenants a chance to experience the space, real estate marketers say the use of virtual reality boosts the credibility of a project with prospective tech tenants, and gives others a chance to experience virtual reality for the first time.

“To be able to show them something that they haven’t seen before — that, in and of itself, is a game-changer for us,” said Elizabeth O’Carroll, vice president of brokerage services with Jones Lang LaSalle, the commercial real estate services company, which is marketing the Park Tower project.

“This will be game-changing, we think, in terms of where our industry is headed — selling real estate and experiencing virtual environments,” agreed Jamie Fleming, the Studio216 CEO and founder. “I think consumers will really demand this level of immersion to make a better-informed decision.”

It’s not just prospective tenants or buyers who will benefit, Fleming pointed out. He noted that lenders, for example, will also want to take virtual reality tours of buildings before putting millions — or hundreds of millions — of dollars toward a major project.

One additional benefit is the ability to take screengrabs from any angle, allowing for endless static renderings to be generated from the virtual reality environment.

Another project that will use virtual reality is LUMA, a 24-story condo building slated for Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. The virtual reality experience, also using an Oculus headset, will be available to prospective condo buyers in the LUMA sales center when it opens in April.

Of course, the cost of a creating virtual reality experience is higher than making a series of renderings. But real estate marketers say it’s possible to fit virtual reality projects within an existing marketing budget by reallocating funds from other areas — skipping old-fashioned scale models, for example.

Virtual reality “allows the prospective buyer to understand more fully what the finished product is ultimately going to look like,” said Stephen Fina of Red Propeller, the real estate sales and marketing company working with developer Lowe Enterprises on the LUMA project. “It’s very hard for people to understand that from 2D plans or even from renderings that are well-executed. We like people to be able to move around in the space and experience the space they will ultimately live in.”

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