At a San Francisco real estate conference this summer, Brandon Doyle was recognized for using drones to take pictures of clients' homes for sale.
But while he was there, the Twin Cities agent stumbled across what he thinks is the next big thing: a 3-D camera that creates virtual "dollhouse" tours.
The cameras, technically known as "indoor mapping systems," create high-definition reconstructions that shoppers can view and manipulate online.
"They can literally walk around the house and go whichever direction they want and look at whatever is important to them," Doyle said.
Doyle's timing was perfect. Matterport, the Mountain View, Calif., company that makes the cameras, had just started selling them, and Doyle wanted one. Badly.
But at more than $5,500 for the camera, software and other equipment, Doyle set a goal for himself: After two house sales, he could buy the camera.
"It took a month, and I'm very happy with that decision," he said.
The laptop-sized camera, which has several lenses, is mounted to a tripod that can be moved around the house.
The camera rotates to scan all surfaces that are within view of its lenses. Doyle can monitor what's being recorded via a proprietary app on an iPad that's connected to the camera.
After about a minute, Doyle moves the camera to another position in the room to scan the space from another angle. The camera's sophisticated software is able to seamlessly stitch those images together. It takes about 30 minutes for every 1,000 square feet of interior space, and the images can be manipulated in various ways.
The tool is just the latest available to agents who are under enormous pressure to embrace technology. Increasingly, buyers use the Internet to shop for a house and narrow their options long before visiting a place. Some studies show that up to 90 percent of all buyers start their house search online.
Doyle, a second-generation agent who is pursuing his master's in real estate at the University of St. Thomas, has been using drones, or "unmanned aerial vehicles," to do aerial house and neighborhood tours as a way to give his clients a service they can't get with other agents, or without hiring a professional photography company.
The Matterport camera, he said, won't replace still photos, but will be just one more service and, he hopes, an edge over his competition.
"All of the clients we show this to have been blown away, especially in the high-end market," he said. "They haven't seen this before. They tell their friends, and more people are wanting it."
A custom homebuilder, for example, recently hired Doyle to make Matterport tours of the houses the company is building so employees can show them to prospective buyers, giving buyers a way to see their work without having to replicate the house itself.
"Even after the house sells, we're able to virtually take a client through the home, so it's almost as if we have this perpetual model," said Kim Schmidt of R&R Construction, a custom homebuilder based in Minneapolis. "Whether they're in the Twin Cities or in some remote location, they're able to get online and take a look at the interior and take a guided tour themselves."
Doyle said other agents are asking him to do walk-throughs of their listings, but he doesn't plan to offer that service. He wants to focus on the business of buying and selling, and he knows that eventually he'll be competing with professional photography companies when they acquire the equipment.
"Once people see the success I'm having with it, it won't be long before others pick up on it and invest in the technology themselves," he said. "My focus is on real estate, and, at the end of the day, that's my career and that's where I'll spend my time."