Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Virtual realty: Could Second Life shake up condo market?

Condocenter aims to shake up real estate market through Second Life

Originally published on cbc.ca.

Scott Keller, vice-president of Vancouver-based Global Condocenter Corp., is confident he’s hit on a way to turn virtual reality into virtual realty.

Keller took me on a tour of his firm’s newest real estate sales centre. On an LCD panel in front of us were two windows and several buttons.

Using the first window, we picked a condo. Immediately, a mock-up of the building’s exterior appeared above the panel and started turning.

On the second window, we picked one of the building’s condo layouts. A full-sized mock-up sprang up in front of us, similar to virtual realities created by the holodeck in Star Trek.

We then flew through the simulation, Superman-style, to the condo mock-up. Dropping inside, we walked the layout. I clicked the floor and kitchen counter to view design choices the builder plans to offer. Keller set up a dining table and a fireplace in the otherwise void interior to help me picture the possibilities.

When we were done, we flew back to the control panel. Keller clicked a button to clear the holodeck. We then flew to a building that houses micro sales offices for 40 condo developments scattered throughout the world.

Unreal, you say? You’re right. This condo shopping spree came courtesy of Second Life, a massive multiplayer online game.

Participants in virtual worlds like Second Life assume identities represented by avatars, oft-idealized three-dimensional human images that walk, gesticulate, and, yes, fly through Second Life’s digital representations of streets, shops and skies.

Second Life differs from other virtual online environments in at least one way: While plenty of individuals join simply for fun, “players” also include names like Telus, Mercedes, Nissan, Coca-Cola and the Vancouver Police Force. People and businesses buy and sell virtual islands, merchandise and services using Linden dollars, named for San Francisco’s Linden Labs, creators of Second Life. (You can buy and sell 1,000 Linden dollars for about $4 US.) Some of them actually make money in Second Life, while others use it strictly for marketing.

While many businesses are experimenting in Second Life, Global Condocenter bought an island and began development with a definite plan in mind. A virtual condo shopping mall grew out of Global Condocenter’s current business; helping condo developers promote their properties to buyers around the world using the site www.condocenter.com.

“There isn’t as much interactivity on the web,” said Cliff Bowman, Global Condocenter’s president. “You click a few times to get to information you want. Here, you can walk floor plans from buildings all over the world.”

It’s not just the interior that clients can appreciate.

“You can see a condo in Hong Kong or a townhouse in the Seychelles, and you see the matching exterior view from the windows too,” Bowman said.

Back in the Second Life world, Keller, in the form of his avatar Arthur Kellner, showed me a world map dotted with yellow push pins. Each pin represents developments that Global Condocenter is helping to market.

Kellner right-clicked one of these developments and teleported (yes, à la Star Trek again) to that development’s sales centre in a building just across the virtual street.

Condo shoppers can use these micro-sales centres to meet with developers regardless of where in the world they happen to be. It’s a boon for buyers seeking resort properties and condos in faraway places.

“It’s a new form of Webex,” said Keller, referring to the company that provides online collaboration and conferencing services.

The largely homogenous sales centres feature tables and chairs, posters of the development and a Global Condocenter-branded bag that rotates on a pedestal. Shoppers wanting to know more about the development can click the bag to visit that development’s website.

The holodeck-based floor plan mock-ups may be the biggest draw in this virtual condo mall, for both clients and developers. While shoppers experience the property without physically being there, developers can save money if they don’t need to build physical demo suites and then tear them down once the development is sold out.

As physical space costs developers in the real world, so virtual space on Second Life islands also comes at a price. That’s why Keller extols the virtual floor plan walkthrough area. Of the nine months that two different internet development outfits spent developing the island to this point, building the program for the holodeck consumed two of those months.

Keller believes those two months were well spent. Each island in Second Life can consist of up to 150,000 building blocks, or prims. A condo layout can consist of 4,000 prims. With this holodeck, the island can “host” dozens of projects and hundreds of model suites without running out of space or prims.

Global Condocenter’s Second Life initiative does offer a few challenges, though, based on the limitations of the virtual world’s current technology. Visitors have told Bowman they compare the centre to a photorealistic two-dimensional environment commonly used in real-estate marketing, using words like “granular” and “cartoony.”

Bowman hopes to hear these words less as Linden Labs continues to improve the system. “It’s the price you pay for being a pioneer,” he shrugs.

The client demographic is somewhat thin, too. As Bowman sees it, Second Life primarily attracts clients 40 years of age and under.

And, as Bowman admits, when he tells people that he has a showroom in Second Life, the most common reply he gets is a quizzical look and the question, “What’s Second Life?”

For those who are enticed online for a peak at the real estate, there are some unique experiences on offer. Where physical condo sales centres offer amenities like the seemingly obligatory cups of coffee, Global Condocenter’s Second Life property takes virtual visitor swag to a new level. Visiting avatars can board the island’s motor yacht and sailing yacht for cruises and tours. They can relax by a roaring fire in the mountainside ski lodge. Two red helicopters sit ready for avatars who would rather not emulate Superman. And for the traditionalists, avatars can get jolts of java in the main Global Condocenter reception area.

A modern concert stage, covered by a structure resembling a massive dinosaur’s fossilized spine, will be the site of a yet-to-be-scheduled kick-off event for Global Condocenter’s Second Life island. Meanwhile, visitors can play any of the instruments they find on the stage.

Eye candy and interesting online experiences aside, the island is still so new that, until now, few of Global Condocenter’s clients have leapt on board. Bowman is betting that will change as amenities and features are added and the idea of virtual reality realty becomes more mainstream.

“We’re constantly developing it, refining it, getting it closer to the real thing,” Bowman said.

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