Real estate represents a unique type of investment for a number of reasons, but the physicality of the asset is probably the most important specific factor. Ownership of a building gives access to a real space, something that no other type of investment can do; even commodities are just that: commodities, with little real differentiation from ounce of gold to ounce.
But although physicality is the most unique part of real estate amongst other types of investments, there’s a less material factor at play as well. Buildings can tell a story like no other type of investment can, even companies with their S1 documents and investor prospectus ever could.
In fact, buildings have become increasingly tied to stories in recent years. Sure, major buildings have long had elements of storytelling, particularly if they’re attractions in other ways. The Willis Tower’s SkyDeck, for instance, tells a story of Chicago’s skyscraper history. But more recently, stories have manifested in more subtle ways. Top apartment buildings tell stories of luxury or modernity for their residents; WeWork’s branding has been noted as being pervasive; even within the offices of space end-user businesses, corporations and startups alike have a vested interested in telling their company story both to employees and clients as well. One report I like to cite is Slack’s State of Work report, which points out the large number of employees that feel separated from the company vision. Storytelling is one way to bring those employees into the fold.
Such stories can be told in many different ways, whether that means art, text on the walls, or the actual interior design of different spaces, as in Slack’s office, which tells a story of travel and exploration. We’ve talked about the role of screens in office spaces, which can be used to display useful information as well as corporate messaging in the places where it is most likely to be seen, like the insides of elevator cars. But the missing piece, which has yet to be fully utilized, is virtual and augmented reality. VR and AR have an ability to bring much deeper stories to buildings as well as an attention-grabbing amount of interactivity, something that can be used for clients, employees, and guests alike.
Jan Bunge, managing director of Squint/Opera, a digital studio that has a number of VR/AR projects, told us that “the appeal and opportunities that this new kind of “reality” provides, both on a consumer and a business level, cannot be overstated. The core strength of this technology is its ability to tell a story, and communicate complex ideas in a concise manner. This can be useful in many ways from a commercial standpoint.”
For property owners, part of the challenge involves finding a way to apply VR and AR in ways that users will actually embrace. Putting a headset on to interact with VR is easy, but for many office environments it can be too cumbersome to be a realistic option. As AR gets more advanced, it can represent a valid option, with the form factor of something like Google Glass, but that is probably a ways down the line. So what can owners do in the meantime, beyond just setting employees’ desk areas up with VR?
First of all, owners should utilize VR themselves firsthand. Jan added that “we expect VR and AR to become integral components of the way businesses function day-to-day. Speaking to business owners, my advice would be to see a demonstration of how this technology works. Experiencing it for yourself is the best way to see not only the many potential applications for any type of space, but to also understand it in practice.” With that accomplished, as in so many other real estate challenges, the fundamental thing is to approach the situation with a sense of creativity.
It may not be possible to ask guests to walk around with headsets on, but having a few in the waiting area could have a huge impact on visitor experience. Google Glass may not be quite there yet, but having a unique phone app tied to the building, where information can be superimposed in relevant areas, is very achievable. Having one VR headset in the management office could offer a big boost to prospective renters who drop in when no unit is ready to be toured.
In sum, VR has a lot of potential beyond just enabling employees to work remotely. “Regarding the physical office itself, VR and AR do have the potential to allow more staff members to work remotely, with the right tools in place,” Jan explained. “That being said, the applications for these tools in existing workspaces are far-reaching, and offices are necessary in order for this technology to reach its full potential.” These tools are well beyond science fiction by now, and that also means that they are flexible enough to apply to a wide range of situations, even ones where they only a bit of an experience boost for their users, not a complete remaking of it.