On a bleak January afternoon, I escaped Cambridge via virtual reality headset to inspect an apartment in Venice. Jim Schoonmaker had rented the place with his family last June, and by taking a few 360-degree digital photos inside, then linking them together, he had created a tour that included the roof deck, the bathroom, and the expansive living room with three big windows overlooking the Grand Canal not far from Piazza San Marco. It was a sunny day in the Italian city, and I wanted to walk out the front door and head for the closest gelateria.
Schoonmaker’s Newton-based company, EveryScape, has been pursuing the goal of creating digital versions of indoor spaces for a decade now. No doubt you’ve seen 360-degree photographs and videos showing up on Facebook, YouTube, and Google Maps. But these immersive digital environments are still disconnected from one another; there’s no way for me to get from Schoonmaker’s apartment to the gelato shop to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, even if all three had created their own virtual tours. When it comes to these digital versions of real-world environments, “you can’t get there from here” is not actually a joke.
There’s lots of buzz these days about virtual reality technology and ideas for how it could be used, from education to architecture to gaming to shopping. But much of what people are talking about are three-dimensional environments that you can amble around freely, picking up objects or rearranging furniture to see how it would look. What EveryScape has been working on is a simpler approach: Snap two-dimensional panoramic photos of a space, and enable the viewer to stand in the spot where the photographer was and look around. You can “teleport” from one room to an adjacent one, but you can’t really walk there or grab an item in the room to inspect it. (One big plus: You can view the content on the Web or a mobile phone, without special VR goggles or glasses.)
EveryScape has been around since 2002, when it was founded as Mok3, and has been working on capturing indoor spaces since 2007. Even before that, in 1995, Apple’s QuickTime VR technology allowed people to post 360-degree environments on the Web. But one of the few places they’ve caught on is in the real estate industry, where higher-end houses on the market sometimes feature virtual tours.
Why is even this JV version of VR taking so long to take off?
“I’ve said from the get-go that VR is going to get used a lot when it gets created a lot,” Schoonmaker said. “Look back to the history of photography. The industry was very small and condensed for decades until Kodak and Polaroid came along. The cost and ease of doing it went down so dramatically. That’s what we’re trying to do with VR now, so anyone can create it.” EveryScape recently released a new mobile app that will try to simplify the process of creating virtual tours, encouraging more people to do it.
At the same time, the specialized cameras that make it easy to shoot 360-degree photos and videos have been dropping in price, says Michael Quan, president of Interactive Tactical Group, a Cambridge firm that creates panoramic imagery. Cameras like the Samsung Gear 360 ($275), the Nikon KeyMission ($500), and less-expensive Chinese models make it “quick and easy” to start building these virtual tours, Quan says.
Part of EveryScape’s vision is that virtual tours can have virtual tour guides. If someone is walking around that Venice apartment, for example, the owner can pop in via text chat or real-time audio and offer to answer any questions. When I spoke with Schoonmaker, we were meeting in a shared office space in Cambridge called Workbar. “If you were visiting this place virtually, the person who owns Workbar could say, ‘Follow me and I’ll take you to the conference room,’ ” Schoonmaker explained.
The issue with that particular example is that a rather large company called Google already hosts a virtual tour of Workbar, including the very table at which we were sitting. It’s accessible through Google Maps. Just like EveryScape, Google has been building a network of independent photographers around the country who will create virtual tours for a fee. Bill Jacobson, chief executive of Workbar, says he paid about $1,200 to have the tour created; it’s linked to Google Maps so that when you find the business there, you have the option of going inside.
To grow, EveryScape will have to compete not just with Google, but with other startups like San Francisco-based Matterport. That company sells a special camera that can be controlled with an iPad and creates a digital version of a space that makes moving around feel more natural. Matterport chief executive Bill Brown says that about 300,000 real-world properties have been photographed since 2014 — many of them homes for sale, apartments, or hotels.
Brown, Schoonmaker, and others in the industry say that one benefit of creating these virtual environments is that consumers spend more time with businesses, rather than just visiting a Web page and flitting away.
Mok Oh, the original founder of EveryScape, now works for Samsung in Korea. He admits that the field of virtual reality has matured more slowly than he expected. He sees intense interest in creating VR content, but he also sees lots of different companies that are collecting the content and want to own it, rather than “uniting into a common content sharing platform,” Oh says. Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Yelp, and others might each do their own thing.
If he’s right, the next few years could feel a lot like the early 1990s, when there was digital content that lived on CD-ROMs and within the walls of online services like Compuserve and America Online, but everything felt disconnected.
Virtual reality, like the Web, will get better when it’s linked together.