I stand in a convincing reproduction of someone’s home. It’s not quite as real as a photo, but it is filled with the minutiae of home decor. I explore it from several angles, drinking in the details. But it isn’t a game. It is the 3D real estate software from a company called Floored.
Floored is the brainchild of entrepreneur David Eisenberg. He founded the company in 2011, indirectly because of Microsoft and the Xbox 360. “I was interested in the community of people who were hacking the Microsoft Kinect, which was a low-cost 3D sensor. What became clear to me was that there were going to be some really interesting applications if we could digitize the world, have a digital copy of the physical world,” says Eisenberg.
So he applied this tech to an industry where digitally replicated locations would be a huge benefit: real estate. He knew that realtime 3D software was getting powerful enough to provide impressive environments.
Eisenberg says, “There were game engines like Unity and Unreal that existed which would enable you to do really amazing game environments, but they were particularly bad at running that content through the web and they were bad at allowing you to customize the nature of how materials were rendered. So there was a hole in the market for almost photo-real, physically based rendering that runs through the web.”
What Eisenberg imagined was an engine powerful enough to present an interactive space convincingly, but available online where anyone can just go explore. His team built a new engine on the back of WebGL that they named Luma, which can put a three-dimensional location on any web page (such as the example below).
Eisenberg is the first to admit that videogames were an inspiration for the company. Many of the employees worked on graphics engines at game developers or are 3D artists that and would be making games if they weren’t at Floored. And the company has to walk that fine line everyday of providing a program to clients that is similar to a first person shooter, but can serve people who don’t play videogames.
“We always talked about exploring spaces like a videogame, but we never wanted it to feel too much like a toy. Our rendering style is totally based in reality,” says Eisenberg. “Videogames always gave us creativity and our company as a whole loves videogames. But the product that we are building can’t feel like a videogame. It needs to feel like reality.”
The biggest issue the company has faced in making virtual locations that perform like videogames but serve people who don’t play them is navigation. Should the user bump into objects? Should the user be able to walk through walls? Should the program incorporate gaming controllers? Instead, the company has opted for a variety of schemes to go through the reproduced locations besides old-school keyboard controls, including point-and-click travel and interactive fly-throughs of the spaces.
Floored has a variety of clients, using the program for different needs in real estate. Some real estate companies replace static computer graphics images or computer-rendered animations with Floored’s interactive buildings. Eisenberg and his team have modeled apartments and houses, retails spaces and restaurants, for sale, for rent, and even before construction has began. Afterall, it’s easier to make decisions in an artificial space before spending the money in the real world and learning something doesn’t turn out the way you hoped.
The Luma engine is not only formidable in its realtime web use, but also in its editor for creating and customizing 3D spaces. Floored is handed 2D floorplans or 3D files such as AutoCAD. Building layouts are then made as simple wireframes, 3D files need to have the geometry reduced to low-polygon models. Clients can then be shown a version with a simple “sketch” feel.
From there, these plain rooms are brought to life: Surfaces are picked, with new materials getting added into the editor with proper lighting attributes. Then the lighting is placed, and objects inserted, from furniture to decorative objects. And the client can have everything tweaked on the fly, wood can be changed to metal, a light moved a few feet over, and a table placed elsewhere. Instantly, the 3D model updates, showing how the entire room feels different with new light sources and shifted shadows.
All of the materials used in the virtual location are physically based, accurately interacting with light in the same way as they would in the real world. The engine simulates how it will all look, whether lit by sunlight or by the overhead lamps in a virtual restaurant. From modeling the space, to replicating unique surfaces, to getting photographed images for accurate views out the windows, the entire process can take anywhere from a week to a month depending on the size and complexity of the space.
And as CEO of Floored, Eisenberg believes they are just getting started. Floored plans to continue improving the software to make it more photorealistic and interactive. He also wants to improve the usability, creating software that will model 2D floorplans into 3D spaces automatically. There is also R&D happening on using lasers to scan locations that will go into the Luma software, cutting down the time it takes to create that initial model of a location. Eisenberg believes such software could in one year increase the amount of 3D content in the Real Estate industry tenfold.
Beyond its own software, Floored looks to the tech of other companies to help them evolve. The company has been showing its 3D locations to clients using Oculus Rift headsets, bringing its virtual spaces into virtual reality with a special desktop client. Eisenberg eagerly awaits for realtime VR to become available on the web so everyone can explore these spaces virtually.
“We are trying to build the best real estate visualization possible. And for us, that means believing that VR is going to be a big part of that. VR gives you a sense of scale that is unparalleled by looking at a 3D model on a 2D screen,” says Eisenberg. “We can do a great interactive experience through the web, but you will still get some people who don’t think it’s really different from animated fly-through, but when you show them a VR experience they totally get it from the moment they put it on.”
And Real Estate may just be the beginning. Eisenberg says, “Realtime graphics are going to have an explosion of interest as a result of virtual reality. And realtime graphics are going to revolutionize any industry that currently relies heavily on 3D renderings. For instance, the training and simulation industries use a lot of 3D renderings. I think product design is going to move so you can walk around the product and examine it from all angles, versus looking at renderings of it. A lot of stuff will move to 3D models.”