R&D Design in New Orleans started by doing 360-degree videos for organizations. Today, 360 video projects make up only a small part of R&D's portfolio, but its owners remain optimistic the technology will catch on and eventually account for 25 percent of R&D's business.
Virtual reality has been the next big thing for more than 20 years, with pundits claiming the technology would soon transform everything from gaming and audits to medicine and design.
But the new reality has been slow to emerge. It's only recently that less costly 360-degree cameras and software like Vuforia and Unity have made VR an option for small businesses like Benji Logo Photography, of Baton Rouge.
Owner Benjamin Nguyen has worked in the real estate industry for more than 10 years and in photography for more than five. Last week he began offering a new service that allows potential buyers to take virtual property tours. By clicking on different spots in a photo, the viewer can "walk" through each room and view it from every angle.
"Think about being able to see the property without having to leave your own home," Nguyen said.
Ruthie Golden, a Realtor with ProSold Realty, is the first to use Nguyen's new service. The property is a 7,200-square-foot two-story house on Myers Park Avenue with an asking price of $1.9 million. Although the house has all the bells and whistles, the owners are having a hard time getting people to come out to take a look.
"Without seeing what they have in this house, it is truly hard to understand the price," she said.
So Golden and Nguyen set up the virtual tour. "You literally feel like you're walking through the house. ... I think eventually it's going to lead to physical bodies coming to the house," she said.
Virtual reality is defined as a computer-generated environment that people can interact with in a seemingly real or physical way using electronic equipment, such as helmets with screens inside. But the term is often used to include immersive videos, 360-degree videos and photos and virtual tours that don't require a headset.
Virtual reality expert Morgan Krutz said the rapid growth of virtual reality — by 2020 an estimated 90 million VR headsets will be in use — offers opportunities for small businesses.
Krutz, who spoke at a recent Tech Park Academy luncheon at the Louisiana Technology Park on Florida Boulevard, said the applications for virtual reality are endless. The real estate and tourism industries can use VR to provide immersive, interactive tours of properties, cities or events. Businesses can use the technology to introduce new or potential workers to the firm, allowing them to see the company's core values in action or to highlight employee benefits like an awesome cafeteria.
"You just have to figure out what you want to show," Krutz said.
Technology allows a business owner to take a bunch of pictures, use software to stitch them together seamlessly and overlay other information that adds to the experience. The cost can vary, Krutz said. To do the work in-house, a business would need a digital single lens reflex camera, or DSLR, with an 8-mm lens and some kind of photo stitching software like Adobe Photoshop or Apple's Final Cut X to assemble the images and start telling a company's story.
Trey Willard, lead residential agent for Berkshire Hathaway Home Services — United Properties, said the company has posted 360-degree tours of a handful of properties in the past six to eight months.
"In our industry, we're pretty progressive and if you're not willing to kind of be on the forefront of the newer technologies you kind of get left behind," Willard said. "It's just an additional service that we can for our sellers to give them a little extra."
For now that device is limited to pricier properties. The 360 photo work adds around $350 to the cost of professional photos, which typically run $120 to $135.
The company covers that cost so it makes little sense to provide the service for modestly priced homes.
R&D Design of New Orleans began offering virtual reality services about two years ago. Co-founder David Holtman said he and Ryan Becnel took the plunge after watching their first VR videos on their phones.
"We were like, 'Oh my God. This is going to be huge,' " Holtman said.
They quickly dropped "six or seven grand" on a 360 rig, which just as quickly became outdated. Still, Holtman described the investment as a good learning experience. There wasn't really anyone local R&D could ask for advice about 360-degree photography so he and Becnel had to figure it out on their own.
"At the beginning we were just giving away the service because it was something we had high hopes for," he said.
R&D started by doing 360-degree videos for a bunch of organizations, like Animal Rescue New Orleans and Dirty Linen Night. By volunteering their services, R&D got great access to cool events while boosting awareness of the company. R&D's 360 videos include August's devastating flood, shot for the Red Cross; the San Fermin in Nueva Orleans festival, also known as the Running of the Bulls in New Orleans; and the Krewe of Endymion's captain's float making its way to the Superdome as fireworks explode overhead. More recently, the company filmed actress Helen Mirren's commencement speech at Tulane University.
The school wanted to show, in 360 degrees, what it's like to graduate at Tulane, Holtman said. The video is posted on YouTube. Users can click and drag on any part of the image to rotate the video, which includes a second line and confetti shower.
Virtual reality is still only a small part of R&D's portfolio. The company does one VR job a month. But Holtman is optimistic the technology will catch on and eventually generate 25 percent of R&D's business.
"I think as people see it more often, they're going to start thinking about it for their business and they're going to identify how their venture or their organization can utilize the technology to capture what they're doing," he said.
Meanwhile, challenges remain for VR's adoption. There is no single standard for the technology, something Krutz expects will change in the not-too-distant future. In addition, vertigo, or dizziness, remains a common problem for some viewers, and the cause isn't really known.
It's important to move the camera slowly and steadily, and graphics should appear directly in front of the user, he said.
Krutz said virtual reality is just another communications tool, and business people shouldn't let the technology intimidate them.
"It's just a new medium. Nobody really knows how to deploy it yet," he said.