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Facebook's Big Augmented Reality Play Could Spark New Wave Of Proptech

Technologies that people take for granted today, such as smartphones or Google Maps, have fundamentally changed the way the real estate industry does business. The next technology that could transform the industry, multiple proptech experts say, is augmented reality glasses.

A user wearing Facebook's Project Aria glasses.

Facebook earlier this month revealed it is working on Project Aria, a research initiative intended to pave the way for augmented reality glasses. The wearable technology it ultimately aims to create would add a digital layer of information on top of the world users see before their eyes.

This augmented reality technology could have a host of applications for real estate, from construction to building management to leasing to retail. Proptech venture capitalists and other experts say they see this as a major opportunity for future growth in the sector, and they say now is the time for entrepreneurs to begin creating applications for the technology.

With Project Aria, Facebook is sending a team of employees and contractors out into the world, starting in the San Francisco and Seattle areas, wearing glasses that will use sensors to capture video, audio and location data. The effort is similar to the way Google sends cars through city streets to take pictures of the built environment for its Street View technology, a widely used application in real estate.

But Facebook will also collect data from inside buildings.

Using the data from its sensor glasses, Facebook aims to create a virtual map of the world that will serve as the backbone for its augmented reality glasses.

"Imagine a pair of glasses that add a 3D layer of useful, contextually-relevant, and meaningful information on top of the physical world," Facebook said in its Project Aria blog post. "Such a device could help us perform everyday tasks better — like finding your keys, navigating a new city, or capturing a moment; but it could also open up an entirely new way of moving through the world."

Navitas Capital Managing Partner Travis Putnam, whose venture firm invests in proptech companies, said he sees this type of wearable augmented reality technology as a major opportunity for growth in the sector.  

"That's one of the most exciting investment themes that we're looking at and thinking about now," Putnam said. "What's going to end up happening is you're going to have this whole ecosystem of app developers creating niche applications built on top of the data that's being collected and captured."

A Facebook executive told CNET he doesn't expect the full AR glasses to be available for consumers in the next year or two, but he believes they will roll out the technology this decade. 

Putnam said he thinks AR glasses are a near-enough possibility that now is the time to begin creating and investing in applications for them that can be used in real estate. 

"This opportunity is at the seed stage now," Putnam said. "It's early, but it's not too early. These aren't moonshot things where you're betting on the technology working. The technology works already, so now it's about getting the applications built.

"It's a great space to be exploring now because we expect to see real utility and market adoption over the next three to five years, so VCs will invest in that."

A closer look at Facebook's Project Aria glasses.

Altus Group Executive Director Scott Morey, a real estate veteran who now researches the proptech sector, said the ability of AR glasses to layer virtual information on top of the real world could have widespread applications for real estate. 

"Things like this lead to new and interesting opportunities, where you can take a combination of the digital and physical experience and create something that is more valuable to the customer, resident or employee," Morey said. "In the same way we saw what Google Maps did and the value that provided, this provides a whole 'nother level of opportunity."

Shadow Ventures founder KP Reddy, a VC investor specializing in proptech, said he hears many people in technology hypothesizing that AR glasses will eventually replace smartphones, as people will be able to see all the information they need without looking down at a device in their hands. 

One of the most logical uses for this in real estate, Reddy said, is for architects and construction workers, as the glasses could allow them to look at a site and visualize different aspects of their development plans. 

"There are definitely huge applications both on design and construction — those are big game changers," Reddy said. "We went from huddling around drawings to huddling around a screen, and now we're just going to walk around with glasses."

Construction was also a key area Putnam identified where AR glasses could have a host of potential applications, specifically for adaptive reuse projects. 

"If you're an architect or developer or project engineer on a major construction project doing a renovation or a retrofit of an existing building, imagine being able to walk through a space and see what's behind the walls, or to be able to overlay metrics and measurements and see the data behind the visual experience you're having," Putnam said. "That's where we see this next set of tools that will emerge."

CRETech CEO Michael Beckerman said he sees strong potential for augmented reality in construction and design. But given the pace at which the industry has historically adopted new technologies, he doubts real estate professionals will be sporting AR glasses any time soon. 

"All these sexy tools, they sound great on application, but in reality it comes back to: How is this going to get adopted in the real estate industry?" Beckerman said. "So could I see it? Sure. Do I believe it? Not any time soon."

Reddy said he also sees potential applications in building management. If the AR glasses can display information on the internal systems behind a building's walls, he said it can make it much easier for facilities managers to address issues than if they had to search through files for building drawings.  

"So much of a building's systems are hidden behind walls and ceilings, so the idea on the facilities side of being able to provide a level of X-ray vision, I think, is interesting," he said. 

Apartment leasing also presents an opportunity for wearable AR applications, Morey said, as the glasses could display information on building amenities and services to prospective renters as they tour a space. 

"For prospective tenants, clearly it can create some things relative to how people identify and browse and decide to rent space," Morey said of the technology. "It's sort of already happening to some extent, but in a less dynamic fashion. So this has the chance to create a better experience on the multifamily side."

The technology could also have a wide range of uses for shoppers that could help increase sales at retail properties, Morey said.

Someone with dietary restrictions could walk through a grocery store and the glasses could highlight which foods they are able to eat. Or a shopper in a mall looking for a certain article of clothing could have the glasses direct them to the correct aisle. 

"The overlay of what you could do digitally with that format would have a lot of value in driving productivity," Morey said. 

While these proptech applications may still be several years away, Putnam said he has seen major advancements in the technology that make it more feasible. He said earlier hype around wearable AR led to some failures, such as Google Glass and Magic Leap, but the technology has continued to improve. He thinks the next wave could lead to widespread adoption. 

"There was an initial wave of excitement around VR and AR three to five years ago, and then there were some failures, which is typical of a lot of technology adoption curves," Putnam said. "Now you've had a couple years of it being quiet, but we see all the underlying technologies that make these things possible are now making it a really exciting time."