Wizio Gives Apartment-Hunting Students 360 Degree Views of Properties
The real estate industry is, similar to other sectors, in need of technological advancement. Wizio, a company out of Northeastern University’s burgeoning student-led tech space, is utilizing VR technology to help brokerages and real estate agents display their property with 360 views of apartments.
Wizio’s Co-Founder & COO John Puma III had a chance to speak with us about some of the challenges real estate agents face and how the company’s VR technology is helping make their client's search more interactive. Puma also offers some advice for startups looking to get involved in real estate tech.
Colin Barry [CB]: The real estate-tech industry is one that is need of some, pardon the overused word, disruption. Based on your own experiences working with real estate agents, what is the most challenging part of the job?
John Puma [JP]: Many of the property management and brokerage firms we work with have been around for decades and are built on old infrastructure and legacy systems from the 1990s. The most common response we hear is “This is the way things have always been done, and it works good enough.” As a result, we spend a lot of time building relationships and educating our customers on what technology is available, outside of what Wizio offers.
In addition, focusing on the rental market poses its own challenges as margins are much lower for agents doing rentals compared to those that focus on selling homes. Agents are compensated by the brokerage fee that Boston renters have become accustomed to. As a result, a great deal of trust must be obtained to work with agents and firms concerned about the possibility of competition from a tech company.
CB: Every startup has a story to tell. What is the origin story of Wizio? How did it come together? What was the big “a-ha!” moment for the founding team?
JP: The origin story stemmed from a challenge that many people in Boston face: the process of finding an apartment.
As students, we were looking for an off-campus apartment online, only to be misled by poor quality photos and inaccurate apartment details on sites such as Craigslist. We spent hours running around the city, wasting our time and the real estate agent’s time due to the lack of transparency in the process. Frustrated by the entire process, we saw the opportunity to capitalize on the rise of virtual reality technology to create a more efficient and transparent apartment rental process.
CB: When we last spoke, you mentioned Wizio is out of Northeastern. Could you give our readers an insight to what the startup world is like at that school?
JP: Northeastern has a well-established accelerator for startups to grow from. Not only are you connected with faculty and alumni, but through the network, startups are supported by a variety of student organizations that cover nearly every aspect of entrepreneurship, ranging from student-led design, science, and engineering teams to an on-campus incubator that offers non-equity grants to bring products to market. Our first advisors, customers, and team members came from this network.
It’s an incredible environment that makes entrepreneurial opportunities accessible to anyone on campus, regardless of what you’re studying. I could name dozens of my classmates that have gone on to start or join a startup while at Northeastern or immediately after.
CB: Explain to me how Wizio’s technology works. Was it difficult at all to develop a VR platform? Are more MLS websites compatible with VR?
JP: Compatibility with virtual reality has not occurred across the industry. MLS sites and the traditional marketing sites (Zillow, Craigslist, etc.) are not capable of handling this new type of content. In most cases, they offer the ability to add a link to a virtual tour but cannot display that tour in-page. As a result, we’ve developed our own standalone platform to make it easy for renters and our customers to access this content; either directly through our website or by taking advantage of Wizio’s API. As consumers begin to demand higher quality content online, we believe other sites will have no choice but to adopt a standard convention for displaying VR and 360 content.
We’re lucky to have a talented self-taught developer, Cameron, on our founding team who has built the Wizio platform. Early on, it was a challenge to make one of the first VR tour players on the market, and it would take nearly six hours to create one photo that can be viewed 360 degrees. Today, we can do that in seconds.
CB: Boston has a burgeoning VR tech sector. Do you think Boston has a chance to become a major player in the space, in the long run? Have Wizio collaborated with any other VR companies in the area?
JP: I can definitely see Boston becoming a major VR hub in the next few years. The number of resources in the space has been fueling growth, such as the launch of the VR/AR Association and the Public VR Lab. The two industries I see having the most rapid growth in VR are healthcare and education. Home to the country’s leading hospitals, there’s a tremendous opportunity for startups to become leaders in the space as these hospitals begin to adopt their VR/AR technology.
Wizio has not directly partnered with any other VR companies, but we have collaborated and had open conversations with organizations in different industries ranging from travel to furniture shopping. My favorite was the opportunity to create a VR experience for Sail Boston last year. Projects like this have the potential to expand our reach and bring VR to more people.
CB: What are some pieces of advice you could give to startups looking to get involved in the VR or real estate space?
JP: When getting into the real estate space, take it slow. We learned this the hard way when we first approached our target customer with what we thought was the perfect product. We failed to fully understand how they run their business, where they fit within the real estate market, and what challenges they face. It wasn’t until we had a much better understanding of the industry and built a relationship with these firms that we could introduce what Wizio was doing.
CB: Wizio is partnered with several brokerages and real estate agents. What is one use case that has stood out to you and the Wizio team?
JP: Wizio’s primary drive in 2018 was focused on the need for content acquisition. Our primary value proposition for customers is our ability to create and share vast amounts of VR data. To that end, the success of our work would not have been possible without partnerships with companies like Encore Realty and Octagon Properties. These are two examples of a brokerage and property manager who worked closely with us to collect content for more than 500 properties this year.
They were instrumental in helping us tackle the September 1 apartment turnover and will continue to provide a great deal of feedback and insight as we iterate our product to bring virtual tours to thousands of apartments across the city.
Below, we’ve provided two quotes from these partners:
“Wizio’s virtual tours are the next technological step for high-demand rental markets. Their content allows our clientele to save time, view more properties, and ultimately secure the best unit for their needs in the most efficient manner,” said Dave Monheit, Partner at Encore Realty.
Jessica Henry of Octagon Properties shared, “We wanted to capture virtual tours of as many apartments as possible during the September 1st apartment turnover period…The high-quality tours produced by Wizio will be a key marketing tool used to rent our apartments in the future.”
CB: I have to ask...where did you come up with a name like Wizio?
JP: When we started, we wanted to be the go-to place to cover the whole rental process and be “the apartment wizard.” Wizio was born out of that concept and believe it, or not our first logo was an owl with a wizard hat.
CB: Any other additional comments you’d like to make?
JP: If you’re a real estate professional or someone planning to rent an apartment in the next year, we’d love to connect with you! Reach out to us through our chatbot over at wizio.co!
Images courtesy of Wizio. Masthead image courtesy of Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University