Since humans started stacking stones they’ve faced a problem: you can’t see a building before it’s built. If you’re just stacking stones, that’s not too big a problem. But, if you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a new home constructed, you want to be sure that it’s exactly what you want. Augmented reality offers a new tool to solve this problem.
homeAR, by Reactar Labs, is a “pre-build visualization platform” that lets property owners and developers take a virtual tour of a building before it is constructed. To understand more about this augmented reality application and the problem that it solves, we spoke with founder and CEO Richard Penny.
Building a homeAR
“You can’t try out a new home before you build it, and that causes problems throughout,” explained Penny. “Going back a few years, this is about how do we use the technology that we have or that is emerging to solve these basic problems.”
In 2017, what would become homeAR started out as a plan for an augmented reality marketing tool – something that developers could use to show their ideas to potential clients and customers. People can and do use homeAR to market their building designs, but the concept took on a whole new life when Penny happened to have his own home built.
“As often these things do, it coincided with some personal experience – buying a plot of land and trying to build a dream homeland encountering those problems first-hand,” said Penny.
Around the same time, ARkit and ARCore came out. “Augmented reality moved from being something that required some serious science … to the point where a lot of the base maths had been solved and you could focus on the basics of an experience.”
Already being in the augmented reality space, Penny and his team looked into whether anyone else was working on pre-build visualization and found that no one really was.
“Even though the idea was already out there and there were some conceptual things, no one was really doing it,” said Penny. “We asked ‘How hard could it be,’ and found out that the answer was, ‘A lot harder than you would think.’ That’s probably why nobody was doing this yet.”
The House Augmented Reality Built
“We thought, ‘People are designing houses in 3D, we’ll just bring that into AR,’ and it’s not as simple as that,” said Penny.
For one thing, a lot of architects and designers are still working in 2D. Further, those who do design in 3D usually make massive CAD models that can be too much for augmented reality – particularly on a mobile device. To be able to create a CAD-based augmented reality app that would run on a mobile device, the models would have to be heavily optimized.
“We’ve had to build a content pipeline that brings models from creator tools… and then be able to make that usable and consistent when we present it in AR,” said Penny.
The team tackled that obstacle as well as the issue of iOS and Android having different spatial and mapping sensors. Penny says that the experience is slightly different on Android and Apple devices, but there is feature parity on both platforms. No matter which you use, you can download the app for free and explore sample models.
“The whole experience is app-based. We still believe that the experience that we want to deliver to end-users requires an app… Behind that, there is a web portal where clients go to upload their content,” said Penny. “The inconvenience of downloading an app is pretty small when you’re about to spend a million dollars on a new home.”
If you’re on the site of your future building, you can walk through a full-scale model mapped to the physical future location of the home. There’s also a “dollhouse mode” that can be deployed anywhere. The company also recently rolled out an update that lets multiple users view the same model on different devices at the same time.
“As a builder, you could walk a buyer through the experience on one phone, but it wasn’t the best user experience,” said Penny. “[Now] you can be walking on completely different parts of the house site and experiencing it completely independently, and then come back and talk about it.”
“When a person is using this and expecting it to behave like a house, we want to make it usable so people aren’t just interacting with a 3D widget, they’re interacting with a house,” said Penny.
Also in the works: in-app video recording and persistent notes that could allow buyers and builders to communicate through the home model asynchronously. While Penny has a lot of ideas about what the app could look like years in the future, right now he’s focused on what’s possible today.
“That’s the challenge for all of us in this industry… getting people coming back and using it regularly because it adds value, not just because it’s a shiny new thing,” said Penny. “We make sure that we deliver value now instead of always looking forward to when do we have headsets, when do we have 5G…”
AR That Makes Something Real
Augmented reality is often lauded for its ability to bring imaginative or impossible things into the physical world. But, for many, the greater value of augmented reality is the return journey – turning those virtual visions into physical objects. That’s the kind of promise that applications like homeAR bring to the table.