By Meghan Hall
Augmented and virtual reality programs have made a splash in the commercial real estate industry as of late, helping brokers and tenants alike visualize an office’s potential before committing to a leasing agreement. Such technologies are considered an important stride forward in an industry that is increasingly learning to favor flexibility. SpatialFirst, a foundational technology company, just launched PlaceTime, a mobile application designed to help those in the commercial real estate industry evaluate tenant improvement projects and build-outs. The Registry spoke with SpatialTime’s Co-Founder and CEO, Emily Olman, on the impact the company hopes to make on the industry.
Emily, can you please tell The Registry a little bit about SpatialFirst? As a firm, what pain points are you seeing within the commercial real estate industry that you believe SpatialFirst can work to solve?
SpatialFirst is an early stage Bay Area proptech startup that was founded when two entrepreneurs with a background in real estate marketing, Emily Olman (Hopscotch Interactive and Matterport Service Partner), and mapping Bart Denny (Ex-Google Maps, WRLD3D), both found themselves wanting to help property marketers and leasing reps communicate better about spaces with more intuitive 3D tools. We also saw a looming disruption with augmented reality poised to forever change the world around us by “painting the world with data,” as Forbes writer Charlie Fink put it. We saw that there was no way for landlords to participate in what was coming, nor to claim and make official their building’s digital twin on any map, so we saw a path forward that begins with a leasing solution, and evolves into an important piece of infrastructure in the coming era of spatial computing for real estate.
During the leasing phase, SpatialFirst offers an immersive alternative to the current tools being used to communicate about place such as PDFs, brochures and 2D space plans, with our immersive mobile property visualization application called PlaceTime. For the leasing broker who only has these low-tech tools, it can be hard to stand out because everyone is using the same thing and faces the same limitations. So, with our combined experiences in CRE and overlap in the VR/AR world and mobile app development, we saw an opportunity to create a new mobile platform for storytelling for property and location. The platform can give anyone the tools to perform better whenever they need to tell a story about a place, and enables property owners to begin to think about the value of owning and enabling a digital twin of their property for use throughout the lifecycle of the building.
We make it much easier to visualize something that does not exist yet, and we can add augmentations to cold shell spaces or we can make it possible to experience a property remotely or in situ in a new way. By building a mobile digital twin in the PlaceTime app, we ease the pain in all of these scenarios, help with shortening the leasing cycle and can build an asset that will be valuable for the landlord far into the future by starting with a fundamental building block of the digital twin.
Why did SpatialFirst pursue an application like PlaceTime as its first product?
We pursued building PlaceTime because it was initially something that we wanted for ourselves, and we had early customers asking for new ways to tour with hypothetical fit-outs, so we spent months prototyping the application and solving some pretty challenging issues, like steaming large 3D models in realtime to a smartphone and geospatially indexing digital assets. We see the digital twin as the inevitable future operating system for all buildings and cities, so we felt particularly well-suited to bring our vision for a 3D storytelling platform to life to pioneer the technology as independent developers and build the interface to this new operating system. We also knew that most AR companies were looking only at placing augmentations like “stickers” on the world and were very convinced from early on that difficulty in understanding a space was a spatial problem, and it needed a spatial approach. We also pursued mobile as our launch hardware (currently available on iOS), because mobile AR technology has arrived at a inflection point where there is backwards compatibility with all current generation smartphones (there are already 1.4 billion AR enabled smartphones in the world), as well as exciting developments with more powerful devices on the horizon, including wearable devices like Apple glasses, so we wanted to build towards that future of ubiquitous spatial computing.
The Bay Area is a dynamic and rapidly changing environment when it comes to its commercial real estate industry. From your perspective, what is your current perception of the Bay Area office market? Why?
The Bay Area and its submarkets are so complex! Brokerages and landlords that are able to adapt to a new generation of tenants with different values are going to have big advantages. If you look at what happened with WeWork in 2019, or look at the impact that mandatory telecommuting will have on the way that companies rethink office leases in response to outbreaks like the Coronavirus, we must embrace that demographics and psychographics are changing here rapidly, and both our location and the dynamic nature of life in the Bay Area should be reflected in the way that we lease and operate space. Tech clients have their own unique needs, and I think over the next five years, there are a lot of building owners who are going to feel the pressure to compete with newer, more tech-enabled inventory and will be looking for smart, efficient ways to do that while not breaking the bank on capital expenditures.
Why did SpatialFirst select the Oakland submarket in which to launch PlaceTime?
We saw a great opportunity to launch PlaceTime Oakland, because we felt that having a critical mass of CRE properties in the app was achievable. The skyline of Oakland will be dramatically changing over the next few years and it is an exciting time to tell Oakland’s story. Oakland is also the top submarket for office absorption in the region according to a Q4 2019 report by Kidder Matthews. Oakland pride is a thing too, and we felt like if we could be successful in capturing some of the essence of how cool it is in Oakland, a city with so much development entitled over the next few years, and with so many thousands of new housing units coming-in, we felt like we had an opportunity to be a part of building something tech-forward, local, and valuable in our own backyard, while maintaining a creative approach to solving real problems. We’ve had great reception from the brokerage community there, but we are still looking at ways that the app can provide value to other stakeholders in the area, including local retailers and local amenities.
What markets will PlaceTime look to target next?
We are looking at the greater Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix, for example, but we have not fixed a second launch target yet. Our map already features most of North America and Western Europe, so for us, if clients outside of the area want to be featured in the app, it’s not a problem for us to include other portfolio locations and deliver a “common operating picture” of all of their properties. We are looking for PlaceTime Oakland, however, to be a model city deployment that enables us to show others how we were able to make a big difference.
Why does the firm consider these submarkets a healthy place in which to grow?
From the research that we’ve done, we see a lot of potential in places where there is a lot of inventory and brokers are competing more fiercely for tenants. We have heard from brokers all around the country about the amenities arms race, and we are excited to offer them something that doesn’t require a single building permit.
How has PlaceTime been received by the brokerage community?
It’s been similar to other technology adoption, there are some brokers who we would categorize as early adopters, and they are tech enthusiasts who are excited to be amongst the first to have it and try it. We are really excited when we get to share it with them, because there is a bit of co-creation that happens with those brokers. Some folks in the area remember VTS just when they were getting started, and we get compared to them sometimes. We have the advantage of being able to make hypothetical fit-outs into AR walkthroughs in just a few days, so the turnaround time is fast, and when it all comes together folks are pretty impressed. Not everyone is as comfortable with new tech, but when asked, they all say that if there are better tools to save them time and help them be more efficient, they all say that they want that and would be motivated to use them.
Silicon Valley is not just a hot real estate market, but a market where proptech and innovation has quickly found its roots. How does SpatialFirst plan on differentiating PlaceTime from other office-oriented augmented reality tech currently coming to market?
I have been dedicated to working on solving distance-selling and the ability to bring the essence of a place to my clients for many years. Augmented reality solutions that are on the market today are largely focused on just placing content in the scene but without true spatial awareness of the location. The last thing that we want is an expensive, one-time use asset for visualization, but no reason to use it afterwards. This is what gives people flashbacks to the expensive, very low-fidelity and bad experiences they had perhaps with early 90’s VR or 360° caves. There are some use-cases where a tethered (connected to a PC), high-end visualization is useful, but they aren’t scalable, and while it’s improved significantly in the last couple of years, you still have to be pretty motivated to have that VR experience given the set-up and the form factor. We really think that the overall strategy for us to look beyond the visualization (like what an architect can already do), is our sweet spot. Rather, we are a platform that enables the client to tell the story about place and to invest in their building’s digital twin, something that in the near future will be very, very valuable.
What are some of the biggest challenges to developing proptech in this market? How is SpatialFirst working to overcome these hurdles?
Some of the biggest challenges are not unique to the Bay Area; they are universal to emerging technology development because it’s difficult to get people to move away from the status quo. Commercial real estate is notorious for having a glacial rate of adoption of new technology, so “proptech” is no different in that regard. Furthermore, it still has a bit of jargon-y buzzwordiness that lends itself to confusion. This is unavoidable, but is still a bit challenging. We are overcoming these hurdles by talking to a lot of different people – brokers, REITS, vendors, economic development departments, and also forward-looking investors, etc. There is an education process that accompanies innovation, so we spend a lot of time out in front of clients and talking to them to try to learn where they are at, and how we can make them comfortable with smaller engagements to try things out and learn together what works. We are fortunate to have the support of some really great folks in the industry such as Realcomm/CoRETech, DisruptCRE, CRePN, Berkeley SkyDeck Accelerator, WXR Venture Fund Accelerator, numerous advisors and champions, and the incredible encouragement we get from these folks helps us overcome a lot of hurdles and establish credibility for what we are trying to do.
After PlaceTime, does SpatialFirst have plans to pursue any new platforms? If so, how do you think that initiative will impact the market?
The PlaceTime application is going to continue to evolve, and initially it is being used for leasing and property marketing, but it will evolve into a much more robust spatial utility for the property owner and its tenants: the interface layer to the digital information that all landlords will be providing to their tenants, visitors, and facilities operations. We believe that in just a few years time, the demand for spatially aware services (location-based amenities) will surge, and so we are already thinking about what it could look like to have significant location-based offerings and partnerships. And, when we are ready to shift from a mobile to a wearable interface, then PlaceTime will already have been built to port to future hardware.
Is there anything you would like to add that The Registry did not ask or mention?
Well, I would like to give a big shout out to my friends and colleagues at the Commercial Real Estate Professionals Network (CRePN), both the San Rafael chapter and my home chapter in San Francisco. I am really grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of that organization, and to bring my VR/AR/Proptech expertise to the group. With their overwhelming support, I am excited to be planning our spring mixer which will be an evening exploring emerging tech for CRE on April 22nd at K&L Gates. I am sure that the event will be oversubscribed, because we have great speakers, and plan to have relevant demos of several technologies including PlaceTime, but also Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap to showcase a handful of the really transformative immersive technologies that are beneficial to CRE, including VR telepresence. So, I continue to enjoy wearing the hat of the XR Evangelist to the Bay Area’s commercial real estate community and bringing our technology and expertise into the hands of folks who did not know how to get started, but can see the value for their work as soon as they try it for themselves.