Every morning I have the privilege of waking up and working out at some of the most exotic destinations on the planet: Crater Lake, Machu Picchu, remote beaches in New Zealand. My world-class coaches keep me on form with my boxing, pushing my heartrate into the 170’s, as I slip, weave and land jabs, hooks and uppercuts to the tunes of Dizzie Gillespie, Steppenwolf and bands I’d never heard of until that morning. My jet-setting ways are
only possible because I work out 6 days a week in Supernatural VR, a fitness program that rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, before being acquired by Meta and its virtual reality company, Oculus.
During the workday, I do sometimes jump in my car and drive to one of our company co-offices around Atlanta, or travel to client sites. Just as easily, I can message one of my co-workers in Kansas City or Austin to see if they’d like to hit 9 holes of golf while we talk through a project we’ve been working on together. Thanks to the PGA’s collaboration with TopGolf and developer Golf Scope Inc., we can step onto the tee box of famous courses like Wolf Creek and Valhalla in our wireless VR headsets using the Golf+ app, collaborating through something more rewarding than yet another Zoom call: bragging rights across the water hazard. It may be virtual reality, but it’s real life in today’s world.
Image provided by Golf+
The COVID-19 pandemic witnessed the explosion of virtual reality, beyond specialty business and gaming niches, much like it saw the meteoric rise of Zoom, and other forms of telepresence, to the forefront of everyday life. According to the highest volume maker of VR headsets, Oculus, 2021 alone saw their number of users explode by some 7 million, rising another 90% above the already dramatic growth of 2020’s pandemic lockdowns. Like Zoom, it would seem, VR is here to stay, shaping the ways we live and play, and increasingly, the ways we work.
Of course, the commercial and residential real estate industries are no strangers to this technology. Many consumers are already growing to expect the freedom to ‘tour’ in 3D or VR an apartment or office suite they want to rent, from across the country or just across town. This reality has been driven by the democratization of “photogrammetry” scans made possible by companies like Matterport.
But an array of companies were already using VR to enhance workplace training before the pandemic, including giants like Walmart and UPS and even the NYPD, familiarizing employees with basic protocols and emergency scenarios. In 2019, Brock McKeel, Walmart’s Senior Director of Digital Operations, told CNBC, “Life happens in 360, not 2D…. We test our associates on the content they see. Those associates who [used] VR as part of their training scored higher than those who didn’t.”
Today, companies like 3M, Serious Labs and Aetos Imaging are releasing training experiences from Fall Protection and Harness Inspection to heavy equipment operations and even building equipment maintenance training, all in realistic virtual environments.
In Aetos’ case, the virtual environments are literal, high definition digital twins of their clients’ own buildings. “We believe that making it possible for companies to have their best people managing their facilities requires remote access to a version of their actual space, not just a generic model,” said Aetos President Connor Offutt.
Image provided by Aetos Imaging
When I interviewed him (on a golf course in VR) he elaborated that “we need to start looking at the communication barriers in the AEC space, and how we can adopt digital twin technology into the way we collaborate on projects.” Offutt described a future in commercial real estate where institutional knowledge stays with a building, such as equipment training by the Chief Engineer embedded right into the digital twin, or even enabling ‘telecommuting’ by a Director of Facilities who might have otherwise opted to retire, allowing them to meet in VR from wherever they live to ‘walk’ all their properties and resolve or discuss issues with staff in real time.
Virtual office space startup Teamflow’s CEO Florent Crivello told the Wall Street Journal in February
that VR isn’t just allowing companies to reach for their best talent, wherever they may be, but that sharing that insight becomes quicker than ever: “The biggest difference when it comes to training is that the feedback loops will be 10 times shorter.”
To say that built-environment and CRE professionals have much to gain from existing VR technologies doesn’t require a great deal of imagination. Many of the applications are already here: the ability to show tenants more easily what their space can look like after a build-out, differentiating with tenant amenities like VR fitness or meditation spaces unique to a tenant’s ideal, even opportunities for due diligence at facility disposition reaching a broader pool of buyers.
Take that last example: imagine how many more buyers, ones who might be on the fence about getting on a plane for a deeper look, would be happy for their best engineer to walk your facility’s equipment room from her own living room across the continent and minutes later be able to take her dog for a much-needed walk?
In the war for talent, VR increasingly bills itself as a rising strategic advantage, and that claim appears to stand on firmer ground every year. Charlie Cichetti, CEO of Sustainable Investment Group, a green building consulting and engineering firm, sees a future where the “metaverse” we all have heard so much about gets its real value from durable assets relevant to the CRE industry. “When I’m doing a commissioning walkthrough, I want to hand my client more than just a PDF report no one will ever read.”
He wants to hand them a digital twin that lets their team see not only where something needs to be fixed today, but where the management team of the next owners can look for opportunities or issues five years down the road. He concluded, “That digital twin becomes a real asset, one that is appreciating in value along with the physical building; a digital asset yes, but it’s no less real.”
He might be right. I hope it’s true that virtual reality will change my work life for the better, even incrementally. But if I’m being honest with myself, that Eagle I just sunk on the 4th would never happen at Wolf Creek in real reality. Of course, that’s also because my spouse would never greenlight the $240 green fee and a ticket to Vegas just so I could talk about proposal writing with my coworkers. But, hey, if I could make that real, I think I would!