By Petra Jones
Microsoft has introduced two tools that may be of interest to real estate agents – Thumbtack for clipping listings and sharing them with map info, and Photosynth for creating interactive 360 degree tours from digital camera images. Let’s investigate how they measure up against existing tools and whether they can offer an efficient means of combining listings with virtual tours or maps and other information.
Microsoft Photosynth – The idea of a virtual tour around a property from the comfort of your Internet browser is not new. The difficulty really lies in finding a tool that delivers everything the property viewer wants by seamlessly streaming images with interactive pan, zoom and rotate options, while providing real estate agents with an inexpensive and easy technology to use. Faced with a variety of Internet connection speeds from dialup to broadband, and some users’ reluctance to download and install plugins, this can be a tall order.
Microsoft’s newest Live Lab tool, Photosynth attempts to grapple with these problems by using an algorithm that looks for shared features in each digital photo before linking them together and displaying them via the Silverlight media player – Microsoft’s equivalent of Flash. In effect, this means a real estate agent can take half a dozen or so digital photos of a property and upload them using Photosynth, which combines them into an interactive 360-degree view, allowing Internet users to pan by clicking and dragging and highlighting an area for which a close-up image is available.
Certainly Photosynth ticks all boxes in terms of ease of use – the program was able to create a photosynth from just four images taken from various angles outside the front of a property and managed to stitch these together in a matter of minutes. It’s also possible to tag photosynths with real estate keywords, and for people viewing the photosynths to respond with their own comments or bookmark their favourite photosynths using their sign-in account. There are plenty of sharing options too, for emailing a photosynth to multiple addresses or copying and pasting its code to include it within your main property listing webpage.
It’s also possible to pinpoint the geographical location of your property photosynth using Microsoft Bing’s mapping service, and preview your photosynths before you publish them by selecting “unlisted” if you don’t want your photosynth to go live yet.
Photosynth runs on both Windows Vista or XP (SP2 or SP3) and Mac OS X 10.4.8, using a PC with a minimum 512MB memory and 2 GHz processor. There have already been 422,000 photosynths produced, although most so far are 360 degree shots of popular tourist destinations.
So where’s the catch? There is a download involved – visitors who want this feature must be willing to download the 10.5MB executable file to be able to view photosynths.
It is also built around Microsoft’s own proprietary Silverlight player rather than the much more popular Flash plugin. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether Silverlight 3 can ever catch up with Flash 10 (despite now offering the same high definition video, audio and animation), which has historically been the media plugin of choice. These are all factors that might limit Photosynth’s popularity but certainly the potential for real estate use is there.
Microsoft Thumbtack – With the impending release of Google Wave, a communications tool capable of sharing real estate listings, files, maps, images and video, Thumbtack might well prove to be Microsoft’s chance to fight back. At first glance, Thumbtack looks exciting. There’s no coding involved and real estate agents can copy web pages or sections of web pages to create “collections” of property listings through a drag and drop approach, and add related maps from Microsoft Bing. Thumbtack also offers visitors a choice of views, from simple lists to grid views previewing images of properties or grouped and stacked like Post-it notes.
Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat disappointing; especially Microsoft Thumbtack’s apparent support for both Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers. Pasting clippings of your real estate listings into Thumbtack using Firefox means putting up with a persistent error message relating to the browser’s clipboard security settings. While you can tag listings with keywords, these can’t be deleted (bad news if you make a typo) and unlike Photosynth there’s no live preview or publish privately options, so again, you need to be doubly sure everything’s been checked before it goes live.
Thumbtack’s four main gadgets promise a great deal but in practice, mapping facilities are poor and facilities for adding additional fields to clipped property listings require a great deal of manual input. This is a shame, because with facilities for plotting data on graphs and charts, Thumbtack could have been potentially a great analytical tool for real estate agents too.
Better options available right now for real estate agents include Google Wave (examined in REM’s September issue, available from wave.google.com) and SimplyBox (http://simplybox.com/), which could be used for capturing, sharing and organizing real estate listings.
Available for IE (Windows) and Firefox on both Windows and Mac, SimplyBox is a browser plugin enabling sections of web pages, including images, to be copied and saved to a webpage and organized with others including Google Maps, neighbourhood and other local information.
While Google Wave still remains the tool of choice for real estate agents looking for ways to combine real-time messaging and listings with maps, video, files and other information, Microsoft’s Photosynth has real potential as a new interactive property image presentation tool. Photosynth’s popularity will undoubtedly be boosted by Microsoft’s plans to release it on the Windows Live network next year.