Camera gives Twin Cities home buyers 3-D tours online

Via Twincities:

Realtor Charlie Neimeyer uses a special 3D Matterport camera to photograph a virtual house tour of a St. Paul condo for sale, on February 17, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

St. Paul real-estate agent Charles Neimeyer had an unusual
companion last week as he looked over a two-story condo in the
Summit-University neighborhood. His sidekick, a tripod-mounted
multi-lens camera, resembles a Microsoft Xbox Kinect motion sensor.

Neimeyer positioned the odd apparatus in the condo’s living
room, then stepped into a nearby room as the camera rotated 360 degrees
on the tripod to capture imagery in all directions. The agent repeated
the process dozens of times, in all corners of the home.

As he did so, a digital representation of the condo appeared
on his iPad, piece by piece, room by room, floor by floor. Neimeyer was
re-creating the condo in a virtual form that would later allow him, or
anyone, to wander around the residence as if they were there.

Niemeyer said he’s electrified by this new tech tool — and
he’s hardly alone. Real estate agents across the Twin Cities and the
country have been brandishing this camera, made by a Silicon Valley
company called Matterport, and marveling at what the gizmo can do.

The camera, according to agents who have embraced it, is the
realization of a long-held industry dream to assemble virtual home
tours that aren’t, well, lame.

Other such approaches have included slideshows set to music,
fishbowl panoramas that let online users peer in all directions as they
stand in place and so on.

Though broadly used, such gimmicks have not created genuine
excitement, according to real estate agents interviewed for this story.
Matterport, on the other hand, appears to be gaining traction with
agents who think it might be a game changer.

“I heard about it from another agent, and I immediately
ordered one,” Neimeyer said.

“It is difficult for people to visualize a floor plan if they
haven’t walked through it,” he said. With Matterport-generated virtual
tours, “you can imagine yourself being in the space, spending time in
it … It’s a realistic representation of the space.”

Matterport-generated virtual tours closely resemble Google Street View environments used to move virtually around
neighborhoods, but are set indoors instead of outdoors.

With Street View, users can navigate city streets using a
series of clicks on the route ahead, with little circles placed atop
the streets to show where to click. Likewise, those taking
Matterport-generated tours are guided by a series of circles on the
floors before them, and can click to move forward while being able to
gaze in any direction.

It is like wandering through the home without being there.

But while Google Street View users are anchored to terra
firma, Matterport users have more freedom.

A “doll-house view” zooms them into the air so they can view
the home in its entirety at various angles, as if it were a toy house.
They then click on any part of the home and float back downward to that
spot. Similarly, a “floor plan view” is an aerial vantage point from
directly above, also with the option to click on any portion of the
residence for a closer look.

Matterport tours are notable for their high-quality imagery,
based on HDR (high-dynamic range) photos taken by the Matterport device
for even lighting, and the fluidity with which a home can be explored
with mouse clicks, or taps and swipes on a phone or tablet touch

Matterport tours aren’t without precedent. Google recently
took a comparable approach with a Google View initiative that adapted Street View for interior spaces like the St. Paul
Cathedral and the Hunan Gardens eatery in downtown St. Paul. Navigation
is comparable to Google Street View, and much like Matterport, but
without doll-house and floor-plan views.

Google View spawned a cottage industry of “Google trusted photographers” in the Twin Cities and elsewhere with
equipment and training to create the interior panoramas.

Likewise, Matterport is starting to spawn companies and
business models that are being championed by real estate agents and
other technology-hip professionals willing to invest in a camera — not
cheap, at about $5,000 — and put it to active and potentially
lucrative use.

Neimeyer, for instance, recently launched an Interactive Showing company that offers Matterport-scanning services for
a fee. These are aimed at real estate agents who want to offer virtual
tours as part of their home listings but can’t or won’t invest in their
own cameras.

InteractiveShowing recently listed 10 active tours in St. Paul
and one in Minneapolis. Neimeyer charges by the square foot — from
$175 for interior spaces under 500 square feet, to $425 and up for
spaces larger than 5,000 square feet.

When St. Paul real-estate agent John Lynden heard about
Matterport’s technology, he teamed up with a childhood chum, Seth Benn,
who is an architectural and home-interior photographer. They are
launching their own Matterport-scanning service, which is separate from
Lynden’s real estate agency based in Grand Avenue’s Victoria Crossing.

Neimeyer was the one who showed the Matterport camera to
Lynden, who was deeply skeptical in the beginning.

“He is my friend, so I bit my tongue,” Lynden recalled. “I did
not believe him at first.”

But after only a brief exposure to the 3D technology, Lynden
said he became a convert and ordered his own camera.

“I’ve never been a fan of (old-style) virtual tours, such as
fishbowl panoramas,” Lynden said. “These don’t show a property’s true
nature.” But with Matterport, “it’s actually like seeing the house.
This works especially well on your iPhone or iPad.”

The Matterport technology is being rolled out widely in some

The Seattle-based Redfin real estate agency, with a presence
in 57 U.S. markets, has been particularly aggressive about deploying
Matterport, which is present in about two dozen of the brokerage’s
markets, including the Twin Cities.

Redfin boasts more than 300 active listings with virtual
tours, and it has scanned about 1,300 homes across the country so far.
About 70 agents have been trained in the use of the camera and are paid
a fee per scan. The agency does not disclose how many cameras it owns,
but said it has multiple cameras in some of its larger markets.

All home sellers are offered the option of embedding
Matterport virtual tours on their Web-listing page, said Karen Krupsaw,
Redfin vice president of real estate operations. And while they have
the option to decline, that is a rarity.

Redfin has a “pretty intensive training program” for agents
who want to use the camera, said Chris Prescott, a Twin Cities agent
who works for the brokerage out of his Waconia home. “We’ve done 20 of
them” so far, and “it’s amazing.”

The Matterport camera, though not a gadget the average
consumer could pick up and use with no prior instruction, is notable
for being reasonably simple to master, said Bill Brown, CEO
of Mountain View-Calif.-based Matterport.

“It’s a turnkey solution,” Brown said. “It has push-button
simplicity on the capture side, with the ability to distribute the
content for consumption in a browser. We recognized it had to be
completely simple, something that anyone in the real estate industry
can use.”

Matterport technology is “a huge departure from expensive
camera systems with major time commitments, big files and specialized
software,” Brown added.

Even so, the company has been surprised at how popular the
camera has become. “We weren’t expecting to get this kind of adoption.”

Matterport’s technology, in development for just over three
years, is a work in progress, Brown said. The virtual tours didn’t look
as sophisticated in the early days, consisting of crude polygon meshes
with textured overlays that were crude representations of a home
interior. The realistic HDR photography is a relatively recent

Going forward, Brown sees the Matterport technology evolving
in a variety of ways.

The tech will be increasingly available on virtual-reality
goggles such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift devices and Google’s Cardboard for starters, he said.

Already, real estate agents are experimenting with Samsung’s Gear VR goggles for virtual tours that feel more
three-dimensional and realistic than those viewed on flat computer, tablet and phone screens.
The Gear VR works with Samsung’s Note 4 smartphone and a Matterport app, meaning a virtual tour running on the phone is viewable via the goggles in three dimensions.

Brandon Doyle, a Maple Grove-based Re/Max real-estate agent
who has operated as a team with his father, Michael, is one agent who
has become excited about the Gear VR’s potential in his industry.

The Doyles, who sell new-construction residences and have
relationships with builders, have scanned various models’ interiors for
virtual viewing by prospective purchasers. And while Matterport’s Gear
VR app only displays a handful of sample virtual tours at the moment,
the younger Doyle hopes to add his agency’s own virtual content for 3D
viewing in the coming months.

Creating a Matterport virtual tour will become increasingly
simple and affordable, too, according to Brown.

A coming generation of phones and tablets will incorporate
sensors that can detect and map the three-dimensional spaces around
them. Google has been aggressively working on such a technology,
code-named Project Tango, and sharing Tango-equipped testing gear with
a wide variety of partners — such as Target and the University of

Matterport has been adamant in declaring Project Tango a crucial part of its tech future. Tango-equipped mobile
devices will
spawn Matterport-powered apps — including those developed by third
parties for showing off restaurants, tourist destinations and more in
virtual-tour form — Brown predicted.

In addition, Matterport environments will become increasingly
customizable, he added.

Prospective home buyers and others taking virtual tours will
be able to modify what they see, such as swapping out furniture,
changing hardwood and carpeted floor coverings or experimenting with
different wall colors.

This is, in fact, already possible — though it requires some
effort and technical expertise.

Architech 3D, an Eden Prairie company that specializes in
creating three-dimensional environments for a variety of industries,
has been particularly aggressive about toying with the raw data
generated by the Matterport camera.

While most merely upload their scans to Matterport servers via
their iPads for assembly into a polished virtual tour, Architech 3D’s
Bryn Erickson grabs the data — consolidated in an industry-standard
“OBJ” file — and goes crazy using a variety of desktop programs for
image editing.

Erickson, among other things, has built entire additions to
virtual houses for those who want to expand real-life residences.

Matterport technology, though currently used most extensively
in real estate, is on the verge of bursting into a variety of markets,
Erickson said.

His company has already worked with a movie-location scouting
firm that assembles a catalog of possible sites for those making
commercials and other video content. The firm also has relationships
with home-flooring firms to assemble virtual remodels, and with claims
adjusters for insurance-related documentation of residences’ interiors
and their contents.

612Brew in Minneapolis hired Architech 3D to create a virtual tour of its taproom, which is notable for its brick walls,
wooden beams and high ceilings. Such commercial interiors are ripe for Matterport filming, Erickson said.

But 612Brew isn’t settling for just one virtual tour. It has
several, including several via Google Business View, suggesting that
the online battle for virtual-reality supremacy in the commercial world may
have only just begun.