Technology Solutions

Handheld Reality

The combination of smartphones, geolocation, and augmented reality is creating new ways for people to interact with their surroundings. Commuters in Seoul, South Korea, and Chicago can buy groceries while waiting for their trains without having to touch a gallon of milk. Real estate buyers in Dubai can point their smartphones at buildings to find available space. These advances in mobile technology have the potential to change the way consumers shop and the way commercial real estate users find property. The technology is in peoples' hands, but first it has to overcome its reputation as a gimmicky "Star Trek" toy. Commercial real estate data also has to become more available and accurate.

A New Twist on Pop-Ups

Retail pop-up stores became a more common sight during the recent economic downturn. Tesco, the British retailer, and Airwalk, an apparel company popularized by skateboarders, used mobile technology to create unique versions of the traditional pop-up store.

Tesco introduced virtual grocery shopping to South Korean commuters last year through billboard ads in Seoul subway stations. The ads displayed images of produce, dairy products, and other grocery items with corresponding bar codes. While waiting for their trains to arrive, passengers/shoppers scanned the bar codes with their smartphones to add products to their digital shopping carts. When checking out, shoppers selected a delivery time and location. As a result, Tesco's online sales increased 130 percent in three months, and their registered users increased by 76 percent.

Other retailers took note. Peapod, a Web-based grocer that delivers orders to customers' homes, introduced a similar concept in Chicago and Philadelphia. Ninety percent of customers who scanned an ad during the 12-week Philadelphia promotion placed another order with Peapod.

In November 2010, Airwalk introduced the invisible — at least to those without smartphones and the promotional app — pop-up store in New York City's Washington Square Park and Los Angeles' Venice Beach. Airwalk customers pointed their smartphones at the invisible store to see the virtual shoe selection. Airwalk's e-commerce store had its busiest week ever during the campaign.

The success of the Tesco, Peapod, and Airwalk campaigns shows what is possible when smartphones, geolocation, and augmented reality are creatively combined. "The convenience of purchasing a product and having it delivered or ready for in-store pickup is very appealing," says Candice A. Donofrio, owner of Next Wave Real Estate Investments in Bullhead City, Ariz. If virtual stores become more common, Donofrio does not see it coming at the expense of physical properties. "There could eventually be a whole new need for more bricks-and-mortar fulfillment or service centers, which would perhaps require more space for the business."

Others think that online shopping will remain the main alternative to in-store shopping. "Virtual pop-up stores are too gimmicky," says Benjamin R. LaFreniere, CCIM, leasing associate at Quest Co. in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "It is easier to shop online, but I could maybe see these being used at special events." Eric Rehn, CCIM, vice president of Cassidy Turley in Walnut Creek, Calif., also thinks their effect will be limited. "They may have some impact on spur-of-the-moment purchases, but online and walk-in businesses should not be impacted," he says.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality app companies hope to create uses beyond just buying shoes and groceries. Layar, an open-source augmented reality browser app for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry 7 OS devices, is one such app. According to the company, the app has more than 10 million downloads, making it the world's largest augmented reality platform.

The open-source model allows users to create interest-based layers, of which there are 2,500. These layers — essentially "websites" for the augmented reality browser — display a range of information, from nearby karaoke venues to local geographical features.

Ghassan Ghellal, business development manager at Halcon Real Estate in Dubai, realized Layar's potential for commercial real estate after attending an Internet convention last year. His firm worked with a digital agency to create a layer for Layar that displays his firm's commercial and residential property listings in Dubai. "Users simply point the smartphone's camera in the direction of the building they like, and they see what properties pop up. It's that simple," Ghellal says.

The main benefit for Ghellal's clients is that the app brings other visceral senses into the property search. Instead of looking at numbers and pictures online, his clients can find properties while standing in a neighborhood.

"When clients search online for properties, they only see the name of a tower and the area. Layar provides clients with a different way of searching. If they are in an area they like, they are able to view available properties within a specified circumference," Ghellal says. "Many times people visit an area they like and want to find available property. Layar works perfectly in these situations."

Rofo, an online commercial property matching system based in San Francisco, has a similar augmented reality program designed for property users. After downloading the Junaio app, which is similar to Layar, users can subscribe to Rofo's channel to view listings via augmented reality. The app displays available properties and details including square footage, rent, lease type, and landlord contact information. There is no charge for downloading Junaio or subscribing to channels.

The Next App

Smartphone apps are changing the way people shop for shoes, groceries, and commercial property. The ideal location-based listing app for commercial real estate would list all available property, regardless of the listing firm. But such aggregator apps face a familiar challenge — availability and accuracy of data. "Quality and quantity of information will determine their success level," Rehn says. Listing services, however, already collect much of the needed information, so the data problem may be overcome in the near future.

Dennis LaMantia is interactive marketing manager at the CCIM Institute.


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