Matthew Shadbolt - The New York TimesThese are exciting times in the real estate technology space. Virtual Reality, connected home devices, beacons, drones and wearables have the potential of reshaping how people buy and sell real estate. With all of this bleeding-edge technology, it can be challenging to differentiate tools that truly enrich users lives and which ones are simply Shiny Objects. I caught up with Matthew Shadbolt, Director of Real Estate Products at The New York Times, to get his thoughts on the technology trends that will impact the real estate industry in 2016.

The following is my Q-and-A with Shadbolt:

Q: Tell me about your work at the New York Times and what it means to be the “Director of Real Estate Products.”

A: As the product director, I act as the general manager for the Real Estate section at The New York Times. This means I’m responsible for 2 main things, growing audience and revenue. To do this, I work closely with many different groups within the organization, including the newsroom, sales, marketing, business development and advertising. The Real Estate product group itself consists of a team of incredibly talented designers, project managers and developers, all of whom help to grow our product by building relentlessly helpful tools and services which make our core product, our journalism, actionable.

As you can imagine, The New York Times is going through an exciting, unprecedented period of change. But in making our journalism actionable, we believe that true, future-facing value not only for our readers, but the users of the services we build, comes from bridging the gap between our journalism, and problems in our users’ lives. As such, we build tools (like Neighborhood Pricing) for everyday living, built squarely upon the expertise and authority of our newsroom, with the clear premise that these tools become more valuable in our readers’ lives over time. In short, we believe that the future belongs to those who are relentlessly helpful, something we share a clear alignment with the Real Estate industry as it too continues to undergo seismic changes. We believe that this is the only way to grow a business in 2016.

Q: What technology trends do you see impacting the real estate industry this year?

A: In many ways, I think that Real Estate professionals are the ultimate curators. But very often that value proposition is in question, often eroded by agents less than willing to justify their commission check. This impacts everyone, even the perception of high-performing agents and certainly the brand of the industry as a whole. Ultimately, the act of curation is about reflecting a point of view, but from a business perspective, sending people elsewhere very often doesn’t make sense. This still feels like a largely unresolved problem in 2016.

A great example of what I mean here is the difference between what’s served up in the search results experience online, versus what an agent does with their customer. It’s not about volume of results and comprehensiveness, it’s about empathy, guidance, insight and understanding. And it’s the key point of differentiation between an agent and a portal. So in shaping the experiences of our customers, curation is increasingly a challenge, not only given the amount of content being produced every day, but also our need to remain relevant in our customers’ lives, AND our future customers’ lives. In many ways, ‘you are what you share’. There’s many agents who do this fantastically well, truly ‘owning’ their respective markets but for too long these folks have been in the minority.

So when we look forward to the kinds of technology trends which will shape Real Estate in 2016, keep an eye on the gaming industry in particular, as VR has the capability to hit our industry like a long overdue freight train, but also keep in mind that more is being produced than ever before, so distribution might be best thought out strategically, rather than from a ‘fear of missing out’ perspective. And lastly, curation is still a key competitive differentiator, so use it wisely, sparingly, and stay relentless helpful as a means of remaining relevant.

Q: VR (Virtual Reality) is still in its infancy. When will it finally hit the mainstream?

A: It feels as if we’re finally at that tipping point where, after many false starts and promises of truly immersive experiences, we’re at that point where VR is going to hit the mainstream. With an aggressive democratization of the means of experiencing VR content, most notably through Google Cardboard, falling hardware prices fueled by Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, the gaming industry, and Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, it certainly seems as if 2016 is going to be the year where VR begins to gain some long-awaited traction.

Cutting through the hype, it’s probably going to be off to a slow start, with traction around gaming in particular only picking up towards the end of the year, especially when titles such as Minecraft begin to ship for the Oculus Rift around the holidays, and June’s PlayStation VR headsets begin to hit stores.

For the Real Estate industry, we’ve seen the growing democratization of VR through great folks like Matterport or Floored, but this is a much bigger opportunity. For those of us who work with international or relocation clients, the opportunity to give them a remote but truly immersive tour of an apartment might be something really special.

So the dynamics of falling prices and a growing democratization of the tools needed to experience this are certainly something to keep an eye on this year.

Q: What is the difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality? Is there room for both mediums in the real estate industry?

A: While both offer the ability to immerse yourself in an experience, Augmented Reality is still tied to the real world, and very often acts as a ‘layer’ of information on top of the user’s view of the real world. The heads up display in Iron Man’s suit is a good example of this. Virtual Reality by comparison has no relation to the real world of the user and is ‘purer’ in its sense of transporting them somewhere else.

Q: Last year, the New York Times delivered 1.2 million Google Cardboard viewers to home-delivery subscribers promoting the virtual-reality film, “The Displaced.” Personally, I found the experience to be quite immersive and certainly moving. What was the response from your subscribers?

A: The Times is always interested in connecting with its readers in new and exciting ways, especially ones which allow our journalists to tell more immersive, compelling stories. Being able to do this by leveraging a 160-year-old distribution network, the newspaper, was an amazing thing to see and the response from readers was incredibly positive. The Times is just getting started with this form of delivery and storytelling and that team has some exciting things coming up later this year, so stay tuned.

Q: I believe that technology for the sake of technology is gratuitous. I love technology that can solve problems and enrich people’s lives. VR appears to be a good fit for the real estate industry. Can you discuss some scenarios where Virtual Reality can have a positive impact on the industry? Can storytelling be integrated into the experience? ​

A: I think that it has some interesting applications for those agents who work with remote, relocation or international customers, in being able to help them understand a space, free of the challenges of travel. That seems to be a huge opportunity, and including a narrative as part of that experience would be very exciting. We’re starting to see the beginnings of this via platforms like Google Hangouts, but once the actual viewing hardware becomes more widely available, I’m looking forward to some really interesting applications for the industry.

When it comes to truly understanding that sense of place beyond the four walls of the home itself, we hear a lot from our users that this is primarily something they do offline, simply by walking around on a Sunday morning for example. Being able to have an agent virtually ‘hold your hand’ through that would be an incredible substitute for actually being there in person. Imagine if you were able to not only walk down the nearby street, but also feel like you were sitting in that great little diner just a couple of blocks away? This feels much more powerful an opportunity for agents over the simple syndication of data to listings portals and brings the agent ‘digitally closer’ to the customer.

Q: You have noted the potential of “digitizing” that proprietary knowledge that lives inside a real estate agents head. I love that sentiment. Can you elaborate?

A: It really comes down to the difference between data and insight. Data is what a search service does, but especially within the real estate category, there’s often very little insight included online. And it starts with the questions users already have in their heads – what does it feel like to live there? How long will it take me to do the school run in the morning? What’s good to eat around here?

These are very underserved online, but something that’s incredibly well served offline by agents, who know the answers to these kinds of things in a heartbeat. As agents and brokerages look to increase their digital value online, putting that guidance and insight into the search experience, and actually answering questions that customers have, is a very powerful way not only to stay visible in a sea of results but to communicate value to the searcher of why they should work with you.

Q: There is so much noise in our connected lives. How can real estate professionals help navigate their clients through this content overload and truly help?

A: I think embracing a spirit of being relentlessly helpful, and making your own knowledge actionable for your customers is a great place to rise above the noise. Standing for something different from other agents, and being exceptional are some of the few remaining ways to do this, but most importantly, it’s something you have to earn. You can’t buy this level of customer service, and those that are effective at this will have a much stronger ecosystem around their referral business.

Q: Lastly, in another progressive move, The New York Times officially sunsetted support for Adobe Flash in its video player. Your thoughts on the decision and the future of HTML5 video?

A: We’ve recently been working on adding thousands of videos to our search products, and already have a highly engaged audience for our editorial videos, so any technology-driven step which helps our users more effectively access video content is something we’re supportive of. Video drives significantly higher audience retention rates for us, in addition to simply making the overall search experience much richer for our users, so we’re big fans of including these in our user experience, especially when the editorial and search video content overlaps. For example, last year we added the ability to surface contextually relevant editorial videos inside of listings. So if I’m looking for a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom property in SoHo, the latest videos about SoHo from our newsroom will also surface as part of that experience.