Looking Glass: Virtual Reality in Real Estate. For Real?

A rental house-seeker speculates how and when VR could become a reality.

I recently started looking for houses/apartments in New York after graduation, while still being based in Boston. As I used popular listings websites like Zillow and Padmapper, I had multiple ideas for feature and UI improvements. All these small changes will help me know more about the places prior to visiting, narrow down my targets, and be more efficient when actually spending time to visit them. While many UI improvements can be handled by the website, one important aspect is still out of its control – photography. Most listings have 5-15 pictures taking inside and outside of the properties. However, due to the highly varied quality of photos, and skills of the photographers, as well as the intrinsic challenge of using 2D images to represent 3D, complex spaces, photos provide very limited information for the users. Example as follows

While Housing.com in India built its brand by hiring staff to take high-quality photographs for each listing, this model will lead to significant cost barriers in the US. Meanwhile, I see two potential technological solutions to this problem.

  • Standardized panoramic photos,
  • Virtual Reality

Panoramic photos are very easy to create with modern smartphones. It is more immersive and informative than standard-sized photos, and its slightly larger file size are well acceptable by modern listing websites. However, there was very little traction in the market, as no website or renters seem be using this technology. Potentially it is because its immersive experience is limited, and one requires some level of skill to create a good panoramic photo listing.

Virtual Reality seems an ideal solution for the problem, and technologically somewhat related to panoramic photos. Zillow has made a move on this. In 2016, Zillow has partnered with Looking Glass, a company specializing in constructing 3D virtual models for interior spaces. [i] According to Looking glass, “having your property professionally scanned by Looking Glass and displaying the 3D Virtual tour on your Zillow listing will give you a steep advantage on a national rental and real estate outlet. By presenting a virtual tour option to your viewers, you are essentially offering an open house walk-through without the prospective buyers or renters having to leave their house. This in turn will allow you to schedule physical open house tours to more serious investors and applicants.” [ii]

At the moment, Looking Glass uses camera sets with spatial scanning sensors to create a 3D computer model, and allows a user to navigate (like Street View in Google Maps) inside the house model. The model is still manually involving (taking 30-40 minutes for scanning 1000sqft of space plus more for post-processing), hence is expensive and not very scalable. The company is charging about $200 for a creating a photographic model for listing. This pricing point is acceptable for house sales, but could be relatively high for rental uses.

The rental market has much larger deal volumes than sales market, though each deal size is much smaller. Hence, a different unit economics will be needed – namely much lower cost per scan. While lower quality could be accepted, a more automated, standardized process is needed. As a rental customer for now, I personally wish to see this technology being deployed soon. However, the current developmental stage in the technology seems to indicate that it first needs to gain traction in the housing sales market.


[i] Virtual Reality to Design or Find Your Home? It’s Here!








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Student comments on Looking Glass: Virtual Reality in Real Estate. For Real?

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Hao. I can fully relate to the pain point here. I have personally spent the past 2 months looking for properties and visiting each one personally as I rarely trust the pictures. I think Looking Glass represents a big opportunity especially for people who are moving across cities. This will enable them to view multiple apartments more realistically and way faster! I also wish there was a standard platform in US (not a big fan of Zillow and Trulia) regarding housing rentals and I wonder if AR/VR can make that possible and more productive.

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