The Next Frontier In Condo Sales Is Total Sci-Fi

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The Next Frontier In Condo Sales Is Total Sci-Fi
June 28, 2017

This entire scene has been created digitally. It's a view from the planned Renelle condo tower.

 

If you'd like a tour of a luxury condo soon to be built on Wabash Avenue just north of the river, step over to the Holodeck on the Starship Enterprise.

 

The Holodeck, in this case, is in a small room in the sales center for Renelle, a condo building Belgravia Group plans for a site next to Trump International Hotel & Tower. Without ever leaving the 40-square-foot room, potential buyers wearing virtual-reality goggles can tour a 2,500-square-foot interior and the balcony of what will be a typical unit.

 

On an exclusive test run last week, ahead of Belgravia unveiling the full virtual reality walk-through today, I found it so realistic that when I was "standing" on the "balcony" and bent out over to look up at the top of the Trump building, I grabbed for a hand rail to keep from falling.

 

"We've all done that," said Jonathan McCulloch, the Belgravia Group senior vice president who's overseeing the tech effort at Renelle, a 50-unit building where construction is expected to start in late summer or early fall. McCulloch said 21 of Renelle's units are under contract, and the 29 that remain are priced from $1.2 million to $3.2 million.

 

Stitched together from architectural renderings of the interior and drone photography of the exterior, the virtual tour is intended to be "accurate down to the pixel," said Kunal Grover, a principal in SmartVizX, a virtual reality production company based in Delhi, India.

 

It certainly felt accurate. A few minutes after strapping on the headset and learning to work the handheld controller, I was "walking" all over the condo, stepping to the floor-to-ceiling windows to look out at the landscaped Water Taxi plaza below and out along the Chicago River, standing in the master bathroom while adjusting the controller to switch the colors of the finishes there and squatting to feel around, and verify that the textured wood flooring I was seeing in the living and dining room wasn't really there.

 

The immersive experience will allow customers "to engage with what it will be like to walk around inside and live in one of these condos in a way that was never possible before," said Buzz Ruttenberg, founder of Belgravia.

 

The installation is the most complete virtual reality setup used by a Chicago real estate development to date. Last year, the developers of the 93-story Vista Residences rolled out a large-format virtual tour of the views residents will have there, but it's all exteriors.

 

Around the same time, the developers of a South Loop townhouse project introduced a virtual tour of the interiors that users could see on a tablet or laptop.

 

Renelle takes the experience up a notch, combining interior with exterior in an all-around-you experience. Glance over your shoulder when standing in the hallway, and you'll see the master bedroom behind you. Tilt your head to look up at the tops of the window frames and you'll see the stepped-back construction detail that will conceal blinds above and behind the ceiling's edge for a full, unobstructed view out the window.

 

"What we're doing here is showing you around inside something that doesn't yet exist," said Darren Rizza, SmartVizX's technical adviser and former chief information officer at global architecture firm SOM, based in Chicago. A Miami developer is using a similar kind of virtual tour to market condos in the $14 million range to out-of-town buyers.

 

Cyndy Salgado, executive vice president of development sales at @properties, said a goggled setup like Renelle's would have been possible last year for the South Loop townhomes, called Prairie Court, "but at the time, the images looked too cartoony. It's evolving so fast that I'd probably go with the goggles today instead of a tablet, because the images you can get are already so much better."

 

Salgado has not tried the Renelle tour yet but said she may use something similar for a project launching later this year in Glenview. Her firm uses a different virtual reality producer, RM Design Studio, based in Bartlett.

 

Salgado said a walk-around virtual tour may be better suited to single-story condos (or ranch houses) than to multilevel townhouses because "some people get vertigo" from zipping up and down steps virtually. But that small trouble spot is likely to go away soon, she said. "There's a lot of work being done on improving the experience," she said. "It gets better month by month."

 

Belgravia paid about $25,000 for the virtual reality package from SmartVizX, McCulloch said, including production done in India and all the gadgetry needed in the sales center.

 

Unlike a brick-and-mortar model condo, McCulloch points out, the virtual model is portable. If potential buyers were in Florida or China, for example, Belgravia could send them the virtual reality file to view on their own equipment.

 

Ruttenberg said he expects virtual models will be the standard before long but that being first out of the box gives his firm bragging rights.

 

"We have the first-mover impact," he said, which may endear Belgravia and Renelle to tech-savvy younger buyers. To say nothing of "Star Trek" fans.

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