To most people, virtual reality is synonymous with a cool but unessential toy — the domain of video games, sci-fi movies and pop entertainments such as “Ready Player One.”
But as virtual reality matures and improves, a growing number of industries is finding creative uses for the technology. According to Entrepreneur, Walmart uses VR to train its salespeople. A 12-month study by Duke University found VR can help paraplegics with chronic spinal cord injury to restore locomotion. According to Endgadget, long lines of people waited to test drive new cars by Chevrolet, Ford and Honda at the 2018 North American International Auto Show using VR headseats. Royal Caribbean Cruises has designed some of their ships entirely on virtual reality.
Now the real estate industry is joining the VR craze. The national building contractor Suffolk Construction has opened a Smart Lab in its downtown Miami office, following other labs in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Tampa. All opened over the last year.
The lab uses technology such as a CAVE (Computer Aided Virtual Environment) room, in which clients don an HTC Vive headset to walk through a photorealistic 3D model of a future project that has been created from architectural blueprints and drawings. The CAVE also allows a group of people to explore a virtual environment together while wearing WorldViz VR 3D glasses.
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The effect is astonishing. You can walk through a work site to make sure the hallways are wide enough for construction materials and equipment; ride elevators from the ground floor to the roof of a project or step into a posh hotel room and change the color of the wallpaper or countertops with the click of a handheld controller.
“The basic concept behind the Smart Lab is that we can build it in pixels before we build it in brick and mortar,” said Joe Fernandez, vice president of operations for Suffolk Construction. “We take real-time decisions and put them in a 3D model so the client can immediately see the finished result. Instead of saying, ‘I hope it’s going to look this way,’ now it’s, ‘Here’s what it’s going to look like.’ This is game-changing technology.”
Other features of the Smart Lab include a Data Wall, comprised of nine large smart-board touchscreens, that provides predictive analytics and other information that can be used for ongoing and completed projects. The lab also offers clients live streaming feeds of their job sites; side-by-side comparisons of the construction phase at various stages; and a Huddlewall, a giant display surface for Lean pull planning meetings, which allow players from every aspect of the construction process — plumbers, electricians, painters — to compare notes and collaborate on their current project in real time.
A pioneer in the field
The software used by Suffolk in its Smart Labs isn’t proprietary. Earlier this year, for example, Plantation-based e-Builder was sold to a national firm, Trimble, for $500 million. But the labs are the culmination of the company’s trademark incorporation of technology into the construction process. According to a recent survey by Software Connect, only 6 percent of construction companies currently implement VR technology, although that number is expected to grow to 15 percent by 2020.
Fernandez declined to say how much each Smart Lab has cost to make, but he said Suffolk Construction reported revenue of just over $3 billion in 2017, and currently employs 2,000 people. The company was founded in Boston in 1982. The Miami office opened in 1994.
Recent projects that have employed Suffolk’s technological services include the upcoming 638-room Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino near Hollywood, which is due in summer 2019, and the mammoth new Royal Caribbean Cruises terminal at PortMiami, which is expected to be completed in October.
“There have been a lot of technology advancements in the last 10 years, but there hasn’t been a lot of drive to get those advancements into construction,” said Lance Dengerud, director of the Miami Suffolk Smart Lab. “Some developers have been a little skeptical about making the connection from a digital model into the physical world, but word-of-mouth from our clients is helping. The conversation is going from ‘What is this? It’s scary!’ to ‘This is what I want.’ ”
One of the true believers in Suffolk’s high-tech approach to construction is Edgardo Defortuna, president and CEO of Fortune International Group. His company collaborated with Suffolk in the design and building of the Jade Signature luxury condo tower in Sunny Isles Beach, which broke ground in 2013 and opened its doors on March 16. The futuristic structure, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, presented some unique construction challenges, including an underground parking garage 40 feet below sea level. The tower is also built at an angle, to maximize its exposure to sunlight.
“We knew Jade Signature would be an extraordinary undertaking and that a collaboration with Suffolk would be a cornerstone of the project’s development,” said Defortuna, whose sales team shipped virtual reality goggles to prospective Jade buyers during the preconstruction phase in 2016. “The result has exceeded every expectation.”
Although the real estate industry has been slow to embrace technological advances beyond what smartphones and the internet provide, observers expect that to change soon. According to Inc.com, virtual reality will be the second biggest real estate trend in 2018, second only to blockchain technology, which powers Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency.
Beth Butler, president and general manager for Compass Properties Florida, said virtual reality could soon spill over to the real-estate-agent arena, allowing brokers to walk their clients through homes and condos without either of them leaving their house.
“The technology is still a little expensive right now, but it will become more mainstream,” Butler said. “Instead of having to fly someone down from New York to show them a property, they can see it from their home. It beefs up the viewing experience and makes you feel like you’re actually there. I’m seeing a lot of investment in this technology.”