Could a virtual reality headset one day replace your office? Dallas-based commercial real estate giant CBRE Group doesn’t think so, but the firm is experimenting with ways the metaverse could help it bring employees together, oversee properties and work with clients.
Different people and companies have their own interpretations of what the term “metaverse” means and what technology in the space can do. CBRE looks at it in two ways, said Sandeep Davé, the firm’s chief digital and technology officer.
One is the use of virtual reality and augmented reality technology in the real world to help manage and operate buildings, which Davé describes as a part of the “industrial metaverse.” The term has been coined for the uses of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies to help workers in physical spaces.
The other is the more widespread idea of creating immersive virtual environments where people can interact with one another. CBRE is looking to potentially use these internally in various situations, such as during the onboarding process.
The company showed The Dallas Morning News what a virtual onboarding experience looks like at its new 131,000-square-foot Richardson office at Galatyn Commons, which houses its technology teams.
In addition to its virtual reality experiments, the Richardson office is a playground for a variety of new collaboration technologies for hybrid workers, such as cameras that follow speakers around conference rooms and whiteboards with real-time tracking for remote meeting participants.
“The entire real estate life cycle is changing in many new, interesting, different ways, and we are applying any and all kinds of technology to make it interesting, unlock efficiencies and deliver outcomes for our clients,” Davé said.
Inside the virtual office
In January, the firm started creating a replica office in virtual reality, complete with design cues pulled straight from its physical offices around the world and a balcony with sweeping views of a virtual downtown Dallas.
While virtual reality won’t replace CBRE employees’ home offices and physical offices, it could help teams from around the world collaborate without ever having to hop on an airplane.
“We’re a pretty sizable team in global locations,” Davé said. “If everybody needed to be in a common space, then there is an opportunity for us to be in common space without actually traveling and contributing to all those carbon emissions.”
The demo shows off an example of what an onboarding experience in VR could look like. In the virtual office, employees can talk to colleagues from afar, look at displays about the company’s history and culture, work on virtual whiteboards and even sip from a virtual coffee mug or cocktail glass.
It could be more interesting than flipping through PowerPoint slides, Davé said, but don’t expect employees to be assigned desks and chairs in a virtual office or work there full-time.
“What we have seen is that it actually augments and makes the physical experience better,” Davé said. “There is no intention to say that somebody needs to log in and work five days a week in the metaverse.”
While the demo is fun to play around with, he said the technology is not yet fully mature. The mannerisms and hand gestures of the floating avatars can be awkward, and using a virtual reality headset can be a bit of a learning experience for some.
With the technology changing at a rapid pace, Davé said he expects it to improve to the point where discussions in the VR world will be more productive.
“Today, it’s a bit of a learning experience,” Davé said. “Tomorrow, I’m sure the technology will become much more intuitive.”
Bridging the digital, physical gap
Virtual reality and 3D models could be used in many ways throughout the construction, development, leasing and sale of real estate properties.
For example, CBRE could show a client 3D models of different neighborhoods of Dallas to clients and overlay statistics onto them during the tour, then jump between different properties, neighborhoods and even other cities without having to drive around.
The company is also looking into creating 3D models, or digital twins, of physical buildings that would overlay information about each part of the property and even details such as the maintenance schedule. Those wouldn’t even need a VR headset and could be viewed on a computer.
CBRE has been working with clients for a few years on the use of virtual reality headsets to oversee facilities, even before the term “metaverse” was popularized.
Technicians working at a property can wear a VR headset to show a colleague in another office what is happening on site and overlay information they need onto what they’re seeing in the real world. That could help meet environmental goals by reducing the amount workers have to drive, and it may also alleviate the shortage of experienced technicians.
“As the industry is changing, there are fewer experts who really understand complex environments, and we are seeing high turnover in the industry,” Davé said. “So how can we bring that expertise into more and more locations? That was one driver.”
A virtual land rush?
Davé said the firm is always working with clients to leverage the best of technology, but in every case, the company works to find the right technology to solve specific business problems rather than just trying to do interesting things with the latest gadgets.
“We have applied use cases that are addressing today’s needs, and we are also trying out some meaningful use cases that we believe are likely to find traction in the not-too-distant future,” Davé said.
Because of that, he said, the company hasn’t explored the idea of brokering deals to buy virtual land because there’s no demand from its clients. Sales of virtual plots of land in the metaverse surpassed $500 million in 2021, CNBC reported.
“When people out there really want to transact heavily in that space and are saying, ‘Hey, CBRE, we need your help,’ we’ll be ready,” Davé said. “But today, that’s not happening.”
Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban is one of the metaverse real estate market’s most prolific critics. On a podcast in August, he called purchasing land in the metaverse using a traditional real estate model “the dumbest s— ever” because there are unlimited volumes of it that can be created.
Nishant Batra, chief strategy and technology officer for telecommunications giant Nokia, said on a recent trip to North Texas that metaverse technology could replace smartphones as the primary form of communication by the end of this decade.
Batra pointed to several current and potential different uses of virtual reality and simulations in industries from aerospace to manufacturing, mining and infrastructure engineering.