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3D Images Will Become the System of Records For Our Digital Buildings

We’ve all witnessed it. People walk around looking down at their phones. Occasionally, they might even run into you. Our primary engagement with the world is shifting towards a more digital capacity. We increasingly connect with the world via our devices rather than in person. We value digital services more than physical objects. Our lives are organized in digital, cloud-based files rather than bulky analog cabinets. This trend is happening across all demographics and industries. 

A little over ten years ago, like many of my peers, I had built up a substantial collection of ubiquitous plastic saucers otherwise known as CD’s. While my music collection was dear to me, the format in which it came was not. CD’s create what the tech world refers to as friction, meaning they are not convenient. Have you ever tried fitting a CD “discman” in your pocket? Friction. Have to skip a song because of a scratch? Friction. Only able to bring a few favorite albums for your weekend trip? Friction. Your friend borrows your new Depeche Mode release never to be seen again? Ok, you get the picture. We no longer buy things, we buy what they can do for us. I didn’t want a CD, I wanted to be able to blast Depeche Mode in my car during my commute. The future requires us to think about outcomes first and their vehicles second. Good technology reduces friction.

The music industry went from physical CD’s, to digital tracks, to ipods that could carry thousands of songs, to apps on our phones that deliver monthly subscription services. The overarching driver for this was convenience. If the internet era has taught us anything, it is the importance of even incremental increases in convenience on consumer behavior. Websites track how many sales they gain by making every process easier, even just moving buttons from one side of the screen to another. 

As nice as it is to not have to carry my CD case around, if there’s one technology that has had the biggest impact on my life, it’s the digital camera. More specifically, the one that’s built into my smartphone. The camera roll on my phone has become more than just a photo album, it’s a digital repository for information. In a way, it has become an extension of my own brain. Whenever I need to remember something, for example, presentation slides at a conference, important documents, or even ingredients for a recipe, taking a picture or screenshot is the quickest way to capture that information.

The uses for digital imagery, however, go well beyond convenience. The billion dollar real estate industry has been one of the biggest champions for visual technology. Think about it. As long as buildings have been constructed, people were making visual representations of them. Neolithic structures estimated from as far back as 10,000 years B.C. are considered the first known origins of architecture. However crude, these buildings and cities required visual planning and organization to complete. From the cave paintings of early humans to the realistic renaissance paintings of the masters to the use of light-sensitive materials to create “photograms,” humans have always pushed the ability to communicate with images. It only makes sense that our renderings and blueprints have evolved along with our buildings.

As with digital music, digital images provide exponentially more data than images on film. They are also more convenient, not only because I can access my photos anywhere, but because they are so much easier to organize—and therefore find. The inclusion of metadata such as date, time and location where the photo was taken enables us to organize and retrieve them quickly. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I use my phone’s camera roll to remind me where I was on a certain date.

These tiny cameras on our phones have undoubtedly changed our personal lives for the better. But humans never stop at good enough. We want to be able to access all of the world’s information from our devices. And while text and images are great at communicating knowledge, they often don’t do a great job of recording three dimensional space. Application to the built environment requires more heavy-duty technology. This is where the breakthrough development of 3D capable cameras comes in. These seemingly science fiction devices can quickly and easily capture a space in the format of a digital 3D image. Companies like Matterport are able to provide an inexpensive way for anyone to take a space from the physical world into the digital one with little more effort than setting up a tripod. These images record a building’s exact conditions and can even give the measurements for anything in the field of view. This will undoubtedly cause the kind of changes that the iPod caused in the music industry.

So what happens to the built world when everything that can be digitized is stored in the cloud, accessible anytime and anywhere? How can the digital assets add value to the underlying physical assets they represent? Will we think back on the way we store and organize our property data and laugh at its inefficiencies, just like we do with our former music collections?

We’ve emptied the file cabinets that were once filled with building data, equipment manuals, engineering reports, leasing contracts, and incorporation documents (although most of us still have those just in case).

It’s a common criticism that the real estate industry is slow to adopt new technology, but only recently has hardware and software become advanced enough to be applied to the complexity of buildings and the real estate processes that make them run. With mainstream cloud-based computing and omni-present wireless broadband, downstream technologies are being introduced and refined for application in the built environment. 

The change has already been felt. Those of us in real estate no longer need things like paper maps, address books, blueprints, financial calculators, accounting ledgers, or listing hot sheets. We’ve emptied the file cabinets that were once filled with building data, equipment manuals, engineering reports, leasing contracts, and incorporation documents (although most of us still have those just in case). We need only internet access and the ability to remember our logins to the websites that we run our businesses on. Soon, even the two pager flyers will be fully digital with visualization and data. 

Like we saw with music and photos, these digital assets are more convenient and offer more utility than their physical counterparts. For example, they can be shared over the cloud, eliminating the need for site visits. Facilities managers can create virtual punch lists and document maintenance and repairs. The visual format of data allows for better coordination with vendors and subcontractors who may be working a building they are unfamiliar with.

On the brokerage and corporate real estate side, 3D models can help tenants understand their new or remodeled space before gaining occupancy. They can answer such questions as: Where are the loading docks? What is the size and function of a video wall? Which doors operate as the main entrance? Digital 3D models can help guide tenants from pre-lease through move in and ensure they are operationally ready from their first day of occupancy.

Now, the saying “a picture is worth one thousand words” holds more truth than ever before, as data can be embedded into video to create layers of information and guide viewers to more content. Companies like VirtualAPT, who specialize in automating digital access to the built world, can ensure 4K video quality in 360 degree technology, while still layering useful information into the content. CEO and Founder Bryan Colin explains, “We use autonomous robots to film the space while simultaneously mapping thousands of data points in a room. This is how we developed AVR, or augmented virtual reality. AVR is our proprietary media type that incorporates 3D objects within 360 degree video which allows us to show what an asset looks like fully built out and staged, even if it only has dry wall up. It’s much more sophisticated than a typical 2D digital rendering.” As much as 2D images are still a relevant form of content within the industry, technology is pointing towards 3D digital models as the new standard for facilities management records. 

3D images are now used to organize data. Rather than have to find building information from a giant spreadsheet or research the remodel history of a room by looking at old plans tucked into a folder somewhere, why not just point and click on a 3D image? As we store and use more digital information about buildings we are going to have to have a framework for organizing it. Humans are visual creatures so connecting information to a visual representation of a building is the most intuitive possible schema.

You probably have heard of digital twins. These connected, virtual replicas of buildings turn the physical world into computable objects, providing a consistent way for us to understand and manage spaces. Digital twins can be used to represent the past and present physical state of a building. They can also help predict the future state of a building by simulating scenarios, testing processes, and predicting equipment failures. Digital twins provide a way to combine a number of techniques, such as streaming sensor data, analytics, and machine learning into an interface that bridges the digital and the physical world. Although most of the techniques already existed as stand-alone capabilities, digital twins provide a common framework to bring them together and more rapidly innovate.

Digital twin technology has commonly been used in the development and construction of buildings. But they are increasingly being used by building management. You could argue that these files only get more valuable over time since they contain more and more information. Their value has yet to be fully harnessed by the property industry.

Photos and videos are one of the best ways to convey accurate and complete objective information. Consider, for example, how real estate appraisals could benefit from automated visual documentation like AVR or 3D technology. Bowery is an NYC based company working to digitize and streamline appraisals. They’ve already created an app that imports public data and provides checklists for appraisers to use. As boomers retire and less people take up the trade, fully automated appraisals seem likely to happen within the decade.   

For owners, 3D models can increase deal velocity and asset utilization resulting in greater revenue. For building and facilities managers, a digital representation of a building creates an objective record that can store vital information, rather than relying solely on people to tell a building’s “story.” Improved building operations and lower maintenance costs translate into higher net-operating-income, the holy grail of commercial real estate. 

Occupiers also benefit from better visual technologies. Improved stakeholder alignment, more rapid completion of tenant improvements, and greater convenience equates to higher customer satisfaction for those using the space. Plus, the data allows management to understand their building’s experience better and re-assess its design options accordingly. As buildings become connected and digitized, managers will be able to understand the outcomes of even the slightest changes to determine where the least amount of friction lies, just like powerful website analytics tools are able to do now. 

For centuries, humans have used pictures and models to help tackle complex problems. Architects drew their plans by hand, and models were built in wood and clay. Over time, our modeling capabilities have become more sophisticated with the help of technology, but until recently, there remained a divide between a building’s model and its as-built state. Buildings never perfectly match the architect’s or engineer’s plans. Fueled by developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D imaging, AVR, and digital twin technologies, this gap is beginning to close. We’ve reached a tipping point where physical and digital assets can be managed as one. 

Led by the manufacturing, automotive, and energy industries where digital twins are already widely used, they can now help the real estate industry design, visualize, manage, and maintain assets more effectively. As society evolves, technology will continue to outdate itself. Just as CD’s are relics of the past, the same might be said for a miniature replica of a building one day. While visualization will always be an important aspect of the real estate industry, one day it may only be accessible on a device. We should consider the ways that digitization will change the industry, and how new technologies can improve processes and drive better decision making. If we want our experience in the built world to be as frictionless as it is in the digital space, then we must continue adopting convenient technologies that help to blend our two worlds and achieve our desired outcomes.

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