How reality meets stardust at Epcon
Is the top photo of an Epcon home interior real or virtual?
Virtual reality is being used to create incredibly immersive—borderline freaky—video games, but it’s also uncorking a range of new sales and marketing opportunities for companies willing to take a leap into hyperspace.
In franchising, senior home builder Epcon is the latest brand building its own reality with computer-generated home tours that are so real and beautiful it’s nearly impossible to tell which are real, versus those that are merely stardust.
Enabling these digital walk-throughs required a moderate investment from the Ohio-based franchisor, but it’s money well spent according to its Digital Marketing Manager Rob Krohn, who promised me I would be shocked by his version of a digital Pepsi challenge. As a fan of development and skyscraper renderings, I thought he had met his match—but, as so often is the case these days, the computerized house usually wins.
Considering that a home is the largest purchase most people this side of Elon Musk will ever make, it’s understandable that Epcon would be open to new ideas allowing its sales staff to show more house layouts, color palettes and decor options to its prospective clients.
The ultimate goal, Krohn said, isn’t to wow clients as much as it is to actually create a tangible benefit, which has proven especially useful for buyers who live in another state or those with mobility or scheduling challenges that might preclude a day spent driving from model house to house.
“You’re sitting at home on your computer, and yet you’re able to take a 360-degree walking tour through a particular home,” Krohn said of the technology. “How do we make all of this, not for the sake of technology, but to improve the buying experience?”
Rob Krohn, digital marketing manager for Epcon, says the goal of providing virtual reality tours is to help buyers who may be in another state or mobility-impaired.
A better buying experience
Before joining Epcon’s marketing team, Krohn was an early tech adopter as a graphic designer who owned his own marketing company. In describing the brand’s recent high-tech tours, he sent me a link to see for myself how far the brand’s designers have come in creating home renderings that are frighteningly close to reality.
Feeling confident as the page loaded, I was shown a series of home interior shots—all with shiny hardwood or tile flooring, light streaming in through the curtain-covered windows, lifelike fixtures, plants and artwork. Telling the difference was harder than expected, and I was only correct 60 percent of the time. My shoulders slumped in defeat as Krohn explained that my results were merely average, not exceptional-in-every-way as I’ve previously been led to believe.
“To stand behind the counter of a kitchen and look at the living room or dining room, yeah, I can see myself spending time there and get a sense of the natural light that’s going to be coming in every day,” he explained. “It’s really about making it a better, more informed buying experience.”
With hundreds of possibilities with every home model, Epcon offers five or six variations on its 25 most popular home designs. As the technology advances so quickly, he said the brand is taking care not to invest too much in one specific technology, knowing that costs can quickly fall or entirely new platforms might emerge.
With fly-through videos, customers have the option of donning VR goggles for the full (and possibly motion sickness-inducing) experience, but most choose to take their tours using an old-fashioned computer monitor, phone or tablet.
Asked about the cost of its virtual escapades, Krohn said the company spends approximately $500 per home for the digital imaging. Compared with two-dimensional floor plans most home show attendees pore over, putting customers inside the individual rooms or in the front yard looking at a home’s curb appeal has resonated well with customers.
Being a franchise company, and being able to share costs among its 60-plus individual builders, has allowed Epcon to experiment without breaking its own bank or being a burden on its franchisees—and also compete with larger, national builders that are using similar technology.
“You might not like a particular faucet, but now you could hold up your iPad and see what it would look like to have a different faucet right there,” he added. “Or imagine going out to an empty field and suddenly you can see the whole home from 360 degrees.”
Thinking back to my own recent home search, perhaps the greatest advancement is falling in love with a home without having to hear the well-dressed couple in the next room enthusiastically say they would be putting an offer in that afternoon—perhaps there’s something real about taking reality out of the equation.