The Future of Real Estate

The Future of Real Estate?

Enter a world where robots, holograms, and even time travel might well upend the business of buying and selling property as we know it.
November 2011 | By Pat Curry

There’s a scene in the 2002 movie “Minority Report” in which Tom Cruise walks by a billboard, and it shouts at him, “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now!” It’s the ultimate in personalized advertising. But that could only happen in a Steven Spielberg science-fiction movie, right?

It’s not as implausible as you might think. Popular Science reported in 2010 on IBM’s work developing digital billboards that display individualized ads. They pick up data from radio-frequency identification chips embedded in your credit cards or cell phone to retrieve details about you and your spending habits and serve up an advertisement just for you. Is it so odd to think that it could plug your name into that? Or measure changes in your body chemistry to figure out that you’re slightly dehydrated and could use something cold and refreshing right about now?

What would that kind of individualized marketing do for real estate listings? How would it change multiple listing systems? It could deliver information on houses that are on the market to people at precisely the right moment in their buying cycle. Maybe the system would peek into their bank balances and tap their credit score, changing the listings according to what they could afford to buy.

Privacy concerns notwithstanding, imagine the marketing possibilities.

Without question, we live and work in an age of extraordinary innovation. Technology is moving at an unprecedented pace. Who would have imagined 20 years ago that that staple of the real estate listing, the film camera, would become obsolete? Just try to buy a roll of film today—or get it processed. You’ll be running all over town before you find a lab that knows what to do with it.

For that matter, digital photography has changed dramatically since it was introduced. The first professional-level digital cameras in the 1990s shot images at 1.3 megapixels. Today, those $15,000 cameras are paperweights—and you can take better pictures with your phone. (Can you imagine how people would have looked at you in 1991 when Kodak marketed the first digital camera if you had told them phones would have cameras in them?) The commercial for Best Buy about gadgets being out of date before they’re even out of the box is funny because it’s patently true.

We can’t imagine what the world of real estate will look like in 20 or 30 years. But we thought it would be fun to try. So we’ve delved into the very serious world of cutting-edge research. We scratched the surface on what the massively smart people of the world are working on, spent a lot of time deciphering what the hell they were talking about, and applied it to the staple activities of the typical real estate practitioner. Come with us on a journey (cue the “Star Trek” theme song) where no one has gone before.

Robots and artificial intelligence

Humans have been fascinated for decades with the notion of building machines to perform the rote tasks we’d rather not do. Where it gets interesting is in the area of artificial intelligence—machines that learn and assimilate human behavior. It’s been a staple of film and TV, from Rosie the robot maid in “The Jetsons” to that really sad android played by Robin Williams in “Bicentennial Man.”

The Personal Robotics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been working for years to create “highly expressive humanoids,” including a social robot called Leonardo and a robotic real estate agent named Rea who exists in a virtual world where people can ask questions about buying property. The group is focused on developing robots with social intelligence that interact with humans, work with them as peers, and learn from them.

One of the major obstacles in making robots appear human has been the fluidity of their movements. Humans see their environment and move through it intuitively. It takes incredibly complicated systems just to get robots to pick things up without knocking anything over in the process—until now. This year, researchers in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems made a breakthrough in robotic movement. This is considered a crucial step if robots are going to interact with people.

What’s the future application for real estate? Consider one activity that many agents dread—sitting in an empty house on the weekend hoping that someone will come look at it. How awesome would it be to have a robot agent to sit through open houses? First, the robot could go through the house and clean up. Equipped with extendable arms, it could replace burned-out lightbulbs in the can lights in cathedral ceilings and clean off the inch of dust that’s invariably on the blades of ceiling fans. Then it could put out all the open house signs—and maybe have a standard helium cartridge for blowing up balloons. It could do visual scans of the prospective buyers and read the RFID chips in their credit cards and cell phones to build prospect lists and perform follow-up calls. At the end of the day, it then would dutifully go pick up all the open house signs. It also would not complain about having to work Saturdays or Sundays when the weather is gorgeous. Hmmm, maybe the humans could learn something from the robots. On a more serious note, it could address the safety issue of agents being robbed or assaulted while sitting at open houses by themselves (though another solution would be needed to keep the home’s possessions secure).


If there’s a movie scene that even the most casual “Star Wars” fan can recall, it’s the moment when R2D2 plays his message from Princess Leia. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re our only hope.” The hologram is riveting—it brings the message to life and puts the recipient in the midst of the sender’s reality. Plus, it’s three-dimensional. No wonder Luke Skywalker was furious when R2-D2 shut it down.

Then, of course, there’s the holodeck of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame—a way to immerse yourself in another reality. You could go to another place without really being there and experience it in safety. It was perfect for Star Fleet training exercises. The Klingons could kick students’ butts, and they could just rewind the program and play it again until they learned all the right moves to come out on top.

Both of these sci-fi technologies have real-world counterparts. The initial versions of holograms were underwhelming at best, shimmery images that seemed to move inside a picture. Today, the technology has advanced to a point where the images appear startlingly lifelike and three-dimensional without the use of any special glasses. Plus, the images can be seen by several people at the same time from different angles. The video camera systems used to create the images make it possible to interact with someone who isn’t there.

The applications for advertising are significant. In England, a department store recently had a display that appeared to feature a popular girl band singing in its window. Fiat 500 used it to create a life-sized car configurator at a launch event for prospective customers.

The holodeck is, to say the least, more complicated. At present, the closest that researchers have come is a concept called the CAVE. It’s a theater that sits in a larger room. The walls of the CAVE are rear-projection screens and the floor is a down-projection screen. Using special glasses, users walk around the room to see and hear 3-D graphics from all sides.

The future use in real estate for both of these technologies could be phenomenal. With holodecks, agents could get training on presenting model homes before the models are ever built. For that matter, models wouldn’t have to be built at all, saving builders tremendous amounts of money—and allowing them to tweak floor plans to eliminate features that buyers didn’t like and add others that appealed to them. There would be no need to send relocation buyers on home scouting trips. They could “see” prospective homes, walk through a virtual representation of them, and see the views from each of the rooms—in every season.

Combine that with holograms of their own furniture and they could see how their belongings would fit into the spaces.  Listing a vacant home and concerned about security? What if you could use holograms to simulate people moving inside the houses—reducing the risk of burglaries, vandalism, and squatters?

Space exploration

If you thought the country’s manned space exploration had come to a close, think again. Spaceport America, located in the New Mexico desert near the White Sands Missile Range, is the world’s first private commercial spaceport. In development for two decades and operated by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, it is a hub for such forward-thinking companies as Virgin Galactic, a company within Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that hopes to offer space travel someday to the public.

If there is space travel, there will be space vacations. As with every vacation destination, there will be vacation homes. Talk about a house with a view.

Time travel. Yes, you read that right.

A recent Reuters news article had this intriguing headline:“ ‘Faster than light’ particles threaten Einstein.”

Some concepts in science are considered immutable, including Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity that said the speed of light is a cosmic constant and nothing could go faster. It’s a cornerstone of scientific views of the universe. Or so scientists thought.

Recently, an international group of physicists working at the CERN particle research center near Geneva announced a discovery that has been met by astonishment and skepticism by the scientific community. They spent three years measuring neutrino particles. Neutrinos are elemental particles that are exciting to physicists but few others. What is important to know is that they were believed to travel at a speed near the speed of light. Now, it appears that they actually travel faster than the speed of light, something that was thought to be impossible.

The news was so big that none other than Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous physicist, was quoted in the Reuters article. He was skeptical, but that’s a scientist for you. Many other scientists will now spend a great deal of time trying to confirm or deny the results.

Why is this important to real estate? Because if the results are confirmed, it would be possible—in theory—to send information into the past.  Yes,  time travel, baby.

Imagine it. You’d never have another offer rejected because someone else beat you to it. You could sleep in late and still get your listing submitted to the MLS by 8 a.m. If a home inspector found something wrong with a house that screwed up the deal, you could go back in time and fix it before the inspector got there. It could be like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

You could just keep going back and refining your closes until you worked out ways to overcome every buyer’s objections. Closing ratios would go through the roof. You could go back and stop your clients from buying a house full of furniture three weeks before closing. You could keep your sellers from signing a contract to have their house featured on “Ghost Hunters.” The possibilities are limitless.

Let’s hope the physicists testing the results get all the research dollars they need. Because if there’s one thing real estate salespeople need more than listings in great locations, reasonable clients, and a fluid mortgage market, it’s extra time—and maybe an occasional Guinness.


About - Tom Ramsey, local Realtor

Local Portland Realtor with 10 years experience specializing in residential sales and investment property. Tom Ramsey Oregon Real Estate Principal Broker John L Scott Real Estate Phone: 503-481-0501
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