The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Interacting with augmented reality (AR) games such as Pokémon Go or virtual reality (VR) devices such as Oculus Rift are for millions of people must-do activities. The same can be said of streaming live 360-degree video and sharing 3D photos online and on smartphones.

But the new normal is not just in AR, VR, 3D, and live-streamed content. Artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data analytics, and even unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are also coming of age and being widely adopted in 2017. When used jointly in what experts call mixed reality (MR) content, these tools may be ushering in a golden age of content creation.

The property development and management sector, including many in the hospitality, real estate, and retail industries, are taking note of these shifting sands. Pioneers are adopting such tools for their marketing and customer engagement strategies under the banner of property technology—or PropTech.

“A lot of clients come to us with a problem like: ‘We hear about virtual reality and augmented reality, but we don’t know what we should do about it.’ We work with them to figure out what their needs are,” explained Ivan Lam, general manager of Brand Karma.

Established more than 10 years ago as a provider of web-based data analytics, Brand Karma in recent years has become a marketing agency with core expertise in immersive technology and new media. That change was in part due to increasing consumer demand for such services.

“We made the decision to focus on and explore VR when, with the acquisition of companies like Oculus Rift by Facebook around four years ago, people started to realize what VR was and what potential it offered,” Lam explained.

At that time, “you could show someone a space using a VR headset and have them navigate through it without them actually being there. As an experience, that is much more immersive than just showing pictures.”

Brand Karma can film a space—such as a hotel bedroom—in a 360-degree video format and import the image into a VR headset such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft HoloLens. The client can then use this content for marketing to potential guests or visitors who wish to investigate the hotel’s other provisions, including properties in other cities.

Brand Karma also creates “game-like rendered spaces where the user can walk around and even interact with virtual items within it,” Lam added. That said, the company still offers content creation services for established media such as television commercials and photography, which have maintained value even in fast-changing times.

Brand Karma’s clients in the hospitality, automobile, and property development and management sectors use mixed-reality products for sales tours, corporate events, and branding—either on websites or video sharing platforms.

For Kazuyoshi Shimojima, Big Data services are indispensable for enhancing a company’s capacity to manage its online reputation and gain customer insights.

Shimojima is the Japan managing director of TrustYou, a data analytics company that opened its Tokyo office in 2015. The company’s main clients are hotels and online travel agents.
TrustYou’s web-based analytics tools crawl the Internet to monitor user feedback. Companies that use the platform receive an alert every day someone writes a review, and these reviews can be sent directly to property managers.

Within the platform, a manager can convert a review into a task that is added to a worker’s to-do list, thereby allowing the hotel, for instance, to respond immediately to a complaint about room cleanliness. Each hotel has an overall score, based on TrustYou’s own algorithm, which can be compared against that of a competitor.

The platform also has an automated feature that analyzes the words used in a customer review, thereby allowing the user to prioritize their response.

“The words highlighted in green are positive reviews; words in red are negative. For example, this section in red says: ‘No free bottled water in the hotel,’ and this one says, ‘The rooms were not clean.’” As comments are machine translation-enabled, language barriers are reduced and reviews from around the world can receive a response.

Ratings provided by TrustYou can be found on websites such as Kayak and Skyscanner, both global meta-search engines that allow travelers to compare hotels, flights, and car rental services.

Big Data is also the bread and butter for Tokyo-based data analytics entrepreneur Sébastien Béal, CEO and founder of Locarise Inc.

“We use offline behavior to extract business insights for companies in the real estate and retail industry,” Béal told The Journal.

Offline behavior can take many forms, he said, including the way we walk around a shopping mall or the time we spend in a particular area of a store.

In a networked society, it is now possible to collect and analyze anonymous data—especially that emitted by smartphones and shared on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth networks, which leave a digital trace—and learn how people use and experience spaces.

How could this data be used? By measuring the traffic inside and outside a store, or even at a specific shop display, you can learn a lot about flow patterns in a building or location, Béal explained. But there is more.

Data can help retailers analyze the entire customer experience by knowing where people go within the space and where they stop and spend time.

“We can look at point-of-sale data, average basket sizes, customer loyalty, ‘dwell time,’ and conversation rates,” Béal said. “It is a kind of analytics 2.0 for retail.”

Understanding market trends, even as they change from season to season or year to year, is another benefit of analyzing customer behavior.

“People in the real estate industry need this information to determine the kind of tenant mix they want for their premises,” Béal continued. “It also allows them to see whether their current mix of users is working—not just for a specific unit, but for an entire shopping mall.”

Detailed data points can also optimize a realtor’s ability to accurately value their units.

“The data strengthens an estate agent’s position when it comes to negotiating rents, as they can point to footfall in front of a unit and say something like, ‘We can guarantee a certain amount of traffic in this location.’”

As of this writing, Locarise plans to expand its analytics offerings to the marketing, advertising, and retargeting arenas, where the efficiency of marketing strategies can be tracked, analyzed, and used in follow-up efforts.

While data analytics and mixed reality are bringing new customer insights and engagement to users, arguably the greatest stumbling block for corporate-client-customer relations is the language barrier.

Tokyo-based translation company Gengo, Inc. works to reduce that barrier. Companies in the hospitality and real estate industries use Gengo’s network of more than 20,000 translators to enhance their communications.

The company, for example, launched a joint service to assist travel agent JTB Corporation’s network of traditional Japanese inns with translations for signs and notices—such as ‘Please take off your shoes’ and ‘The bathroom is to the left’—into English, company co-founder and CEO Matthew Romaine explained.

“We also help hotel chains translate local events and activities for their guests, descriptions of rooms and amenities for online listings, and customer support exchanges,” Romaine added.

A key benefit of using Gengo’s translation service, he said, is that a company’s ability to understand the needs of their customers is enhanced—regardless of where they come from or what language they speak.

“Every culture and traveler is different. Being able to communicate in their language is a big step in showing your sincerity in providing a valuable service. Allowing a customer to articulate themselves better in their own language opens up greater honesty, giving the service provider clearer direction in what issues to solve.”

Thanks to the rise of online travel agents, which have made travel easier, Gengo has seen a steady increase in demand for its services since 2008. This is quite apart from the record rise in 2016 of inbound tourism to Japan, which hit 24 million annual visitors.

Going forward, the company is training industry-specific translators—in addition to its current focus on e-commerce, travel, and media—and expanding its offerings further into Europe and Asia.

When it comes to hitting clients with the “wow factor,” the sky is the limit for Curtis Shaw and Kieran Jackson.

“Drone-based footage gives real estate agents an edge on their competition, because clients can now see the entire neighborhood as a whole, as opposed to the old days when all they could see was the property and its immediate surroundings,” explained Shaw, an independent filmmaker, editor, and drone operator.

Jackson, a sales associate at Los Angeles-based real estate brokerage Keller Williams Hollywood Hills, agrees.

“Video, including images from drones, is really important right now. When you’re an agent talking to a client, you want to show them video of the property. It is the best way to impress them; it adds that wow factor,” the realtor said.

Shaw and Jackson point to the prevalence of high-definition displays, smartphones, and other mobile devices which, they say, have created an appetite for highly immersive content—be it 360-degree images or drone footage.

Some five years ago, Jackson says, high-end realtors in the Hollywood area started using drone footage as marketing collateral on platforms such as YouTube.

“There are so many agents here that now use drone footage; if you’re not using it, you should ask yourself, ‘What are you doing?’,” he asks rhetorically, even while admitting that quality photography still has its place in the industry.

Shaw agrees, but added: “Drones aren’t just about showcasing the property and its neighborhood from new and interesting perspectives. You also want to enhance the amenities of the property.

“If you have a balcony on the second floor, for example, you have the drone swoop up past the chandelier, face the balcony, and reach up to the door. I shot something like this in a building in Yokohama, and the effect on clients was very impressive.”

In the United States, Shaw has filmed large, high-end family homes and condos, while in Japan some of his clients have hailed from the agricultural sector, where huge swathes of farmland can be filmed. His goal going forward is to incorporate mixed-media content into this work, including the capacity to stream drone images live.

PropTech is clearly here to stay. But as with any technological revolution, there will be lag between early adopters and the rest, the experts told The Journal.

A number of hurdles still must be negotiated, not least of which are legislation, challenges due to novelty, and questions over the best mix of such solutions in a company’s branding or marketing strategies. Data protection and privacy laws or regulations surrounding where and how to fly drones, for instance, are still being ironed out around the world.

That said, all the contributors are excited about 2017 and the coming of age of mixed reality and data analytics. And with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games just around the corner, the general sentiment is that there will be greater demand for corporate communications, branding, and analytics services not just in the property development and management sectors, but across all areas of the economy.

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.