If you lived here you'd virtually be home now
With apartments popping up all over Portland, what's an owner to do to distinguish a building from the rest of the crowd?
One dog washing station or gas firepit is much the same as another. Perks and micro-luxuries are become commonplace.
The Storyline Apartment project is due to open to the first renters and their Dania couches, Specialized bikes and IKEA mason jars in July, which doesn't leave long to fill it before the next recession. Since March, it has been allowing prospective tenants to take a Virtual Reality tour.
Marc Kinsman is an emerging technologies director for Mortenson, the construction firm. Based in Seattle, he's in the Virtual Insights department. Instead of just focusing on Building Information Management (BIM) and design, they look for ways to use VR and other tech to help with leasing apartments, say, or fundraising for a high concept building.
Nothing gets the wallets open faster than seeing a sponsor's name on a virtual walkthrough of an art gallery or university building, long before the project is financed or a builder has been chosen.
Apartment hunters drop in and put on the HTC Vive headset (which still had a cable trailing behind it to the computer) and look around. At first gasp, the transformation is stunning. From being in a plain leasing office on Southwest Jefferson Street, a couple of blocks away from the Storyline, suddenly you are standing over a digital architect's model of the building. By tapping certain buttons you can zoom down through the Storyline from the roof deck to two apartments to the gym and amenities room.
The controller throws out a looping, dotted line as though you were fishing. Instead of using your legs to go forward, as is one's instinct when exploring someone else's home, you stand still and press a button. This drops you where you want to go, be it the master bedroom with art on the walls, or the kitchen with fridge which has crudely polygonal handles. You can stand on the couch which is unrealistic, or walk off the balcony which is genuinely vertiginous.
The strongest effect is of feeling the scale of the rooms. They're pretty small but the camera's eye view is of someone whose eye level is it at 5'6" so at least approaching the TV or shower has a familiar feeling, which you don't get from 2D or 360-degree photos.
In the lobby is a digital rendering of a café grade espresso machine. Kinsman say when they left it out of the first iteration the owners were like 'Where's our coffee machine? It's important! It's part of the brand of the building!" So, his team quickly modeled it from scratch. Like game developers they use the Unity video game engine, so it looks good and moves smoothly.
Where five years ago a typical construction company team might have been someone who knew Sketchup and outsourced everything else, they're a three-person tech hub. Two can code, two can do modeling with shadows and complex graphics.
"We do analytics, dashboarding, machine learning, the whole spectrum of things," he says.
They start with the computer models used for construction but they are only used for dimensions. They lack textures such as cabinet finishes and walls. "We bring them up to the highest level of detail to make them as realistic as possible."
Kinsman and his team in Seattle took a bunch of photos from Google Image of the area around the building. So, there are the big trees on the south side, and the west hills stretching to the skyline, with individual houses you can recognize. (They'll have to come back for the martini glass lights at Christmas.)
Then they modeled one empty apartment of the dozen or so types on offer, and added elements such as furniture and appliances, with textures approximate to the finishes a real renter will see and touch.
Finishes are usually contained in a spec book, with names like Floor Finish 1, Floor Finish 2.
"We go through and collect them and render them. Architects do them from one position, to minimize the cost. It's very different from VR where you can see everything. It's an exponential amount of effort to bring in more and more detail."
Doctors dig it
One popular VR project they have done several times is setting up a hospital operating room. They set up the clinic or operating theater virtually, then a doctor and a nurse explore it. They usually move everything around. Surgeons need everything ergonomically correct — the medical gas outlets on the correct side of the patient, or the
table holding their instruments near their right hand, etcetera. "Doctors are very particular. If they hate something, to move it is very expensive." Working in VR allows changes to be made very cost effectively.
Some companies hire video game development companies to make the model, but they often lack knowledge of the construction trades. "They'll miss things. We can notice problems that can arise once it's built, we're an extra set of eyes. I was a Virtual Design and Construction manager before, so I know how to build buildings. Games makers will put the art in there, and I'll say 'That's not right," and they go 'Oh, I didn't know what it was so I just put it in there."
Mortenson built the simulation and trained Greystar how to use it with people coming in to view apartments.
"The main goal is to drive people into the leasing office. Usually a leasing office is in the lobby. We couldn't do that here. So,
this gets people in, because VR is new and hip and trendy. In Seattle we built 360-degree videos they could watch on YouTube, then there was a mobile device going around on a pedicab. They'd be on street corners saying 'Hey do want to check this out?'"
If people liked the pictures of the apartment they'd hop in the pedicab for a ride to the leasing office where they could try the full VR.
"It was just trying to get people in the door. The idea is to get them to sign up right away, or keep it in mind."
He doesn't think people sign up for apartments based just on VR, but it helps get them back when the first model unit is open.
Toys for the boys
The VR is made in Seattle on a Dell Precision 7720. "It's the biggest, most powerful laptop they sell. Maxed out in every possible way. It's more powerful than what a gamer uses. It's got a workstation graphics card, made for render, not a gaming graphics card. It's the same laptop Pixar uses."
The VR in the leasing office runs on a gaming laptop, an Asus Zephyr with a 1080 graphics card.
Mortensen points out that tiny apartments are a trend. Rooms are getting smaller but amenities are getting more lavish. People (which is code for Millennials, with their weird mix of humility and need to be pampered) don't want to hang out in their apartments as much as socialize in common spaces.
"It's all spatially accurate," he says. If you stretch your arms out in a doorframe, that's where it is in real life.
In this 114 unit apartment building, one bedroom units cost from $1,650 to $2,300. The cheapest studio is $1,300, a mere 376 square feet.
The future of VR?
Kinsman has been surprised how many inquires come from out of state: the 360-degree videos are posted on YouTube. The major difference is the VR headset is true stereo, the 360 video does not give a realistic sense of space.
All of which makes me think, VR is so far proving a hard sell for entertainment because people don't want to shut themselves off inside clunky, tethered goggles. But if it can be used for chores like apartment hunting, maybe it will have its day? You want to see what's in your storage unit? Don the Vive. You're looking at IKEA furniture again? Pull on the PS4. Due in court and want to see who your judge is? Suit up. It could work.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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