Latest rage in real estate sales is the 3-D virtual house tour

Technology adapted by European game firm


ST. PAUL, Minn. - Think "Doom" with a white picket fence.

In a bid to modernize how real estate agents pitch homes to buyers, a Europe-based company has adapted its 3-D video-game-authoring technology to create hyper-realistic virtual tours of for-sale houses.

Treveda's 3-D tours are billed as an improvement over the digital photos, streaming-video clips and 360-degree panoramas now offered on real estate-related Web sites.

And while real-life home tours aren't going away, virtual walkthroughs have the potential to help harried real estate agents by cutting down on some of their time-eating physical outings.

Treveda's technology comes at a time when home computers and the Internet are rapidly changing how homebuyers bone up on prospective new digs.

Free, often-updated listings are just a click away, and other kinds of useful information are increasingly at their fingertips. They can pull up detailed maps or satellite photos of city blocks or entire neighborhoods, for instance, and even overlay them with clickable dots representing homes for sale.

But, short of visiting each residence, getting a good sense for its feel and its features has been all but impossible.

This is what Switzerland-based Treveda aspires to change with its 3-D technology, which is just being made public after a half-decade of covert development by its half-dozen employees in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Jersey, Europe and Russia.

Visitors can open and shut doors, inspect every room, traverse hallways, go up and down stairways, even peer out windows that frame photos of the real-life scenery. As in 3-D games, the viewing angles shift as visitors wander, shiny surfaces show object reflections, and lighting increases or decreases as windows or fixtures get closer or move away.

Only the bloodthirsty monsters found in "Doom"-style 3-D video games are missing here.

Treveda has its roots in Shoreview, Minn.-based Fenris Wolf, a video-game-authoring studio that created its own 3-D-software "engine" for use in such titles as "Rebel Moon Rising" and "The War in Heaven" during the late 1990s.

The studio's game-authoring prospects petered out when its two primary customers went out of business, however, so co-founder Theodore Beale decided to adapt his engine for use in the real estate market.

He figured, apparently correctly, that he wouldn't face stiff competition in developing such a system over a period of years. Leading video-game developers weren't about to ditch "Doom"-like projects to go into the real estate business, said Beale, who now lives near Zurich. The "people who want to do this aren't technologically sophisticated enough" or willing to spend the millions needed to build a 3-D engine from the ground up, he said.

Even with a ready-made engine and Realtors in its fold, Treveda has plenty of work ahead.

Re-creating a home in virtual form requires about two hours of digital-photo shooting and meticulous measurement-taking using a special "notation" system. A technical specialist must then stitch together all of this data, a process that takes about two weeks.

Even with increased automation in the coming months, this isn't the sort of system that the tiny Treveda can make ubiquitous on its own. "We fully anticipate we will be partnering with a major real estate company of some sort," Beale said. "If we were to grow as fast as we possibly could on our own, we couldn't grow fast enough."

Now Treveda has to convince companies to use its technology, a potentially tall order. It has had a few nibbles in Europe, it claims, and it has talked some Twin Cities and Florida Realtors into giving the V-tours a try.

Testers include Fred Dawe, an Edina Realty agent, who sees Treveda's tours as a way to make his mark in a cutthroat profession.

His site at http://frederick provides the first public glimpse to date of Treveda-created house- scapes, if only as static images. But once one or more of his listings are 3-D-upgraded in the coming months, anyone with a game-ready computer should be able to install Treveda software and go touring.

"Once I got the chance to play with this, I was pretty excited," Dawe said.

Naples, Fla.-based Larry White, a veteran home seller who runs Amerivest Realty with his wife, Mary Catherine, said he goes up against thousands of rival Realtors and needs something distinctive to entice home sellers into hiring him. Treveda's virtual tours could well be it, said White, who expects to begin offering them in coming months.

He especially likes how the Treveda technology will allow him to fill up an empty residence with virtual furniture, which can be moved around.

"My clients have a hard time visualizing what's going on with a bare house," White said.

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