In the United Arab Emirates, real estate relies on futurism to do its bidding. In architectural offices across the federation, designers render the Dubai to come: all carbon-neutral fantasies and svelte, metallic skyscrapers, inspired by the undulations of either waves or sand. For private buyers, they create visions of AutoCAD opulence: villas curving around artificial lakes and high-tech high-rises that look out over the Arabian Gulf. All of this disguises the fact that, in reality, the UAE’s property market has been struggling for the past few years. There is a glut of luxury apartments that are unaffordable to the majority of residents. So it is that, when the city lights up at night, all the empty apartments become conspicuous in their darkness, while the highways slow to a snaking river of red tail lights, as office and retail workers commute back to cheaper 20th-century cities nearby. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, real estate agents began to lean more heavily on tech solutions to move units as sales slowed even further. Their strategies included direct marketing campaigns to Emiratis via text message (non-Gulf citizens are allowed to buy property only in certain areas), video chats with sales agents (and sales bots), do-it-yourself iPhone video tours, and the use of augmented and virtual reality (VR) technologies. Stuck at home, would-be buyers suddenly found themselves dependent on 3D virtual tour technologies like Matterport, which provides a Google Street View–meets-video-game experience of moving through space — not through a VR headset but your phone or computer screen.  

Usually, an architectural photographer is responsible for the myriad technical considerations, like lighting, exposure, and white balance, that go into producing an image (not to mention creating the gleaming facades, curvaceous planes, and sumptuous interiors that sell the image of Dubai itself). While Matterport still relies on photographers, it gives them an artificial intelligence (AI) assist. Using an app, the photographer guides the camera through a property “like a connect-the-dots game,” as one professional described it, thus “building” a scan on the company’s server. The customer is then provided with the scan and proprietary software to edit the footage. It’s a remarkable time-saver — while it would normally take a half to a whole day to survey a small space like an art gallery, and even more time to edit that footage, with Matterport, that gallery space takes about 40 mins. It also offers the option of generating an architectural floor plan that lets users measure the distance between any two points. When every inch is scanned, trick photography simply won’t work. What you see, unusually, is what you get. 

Image courtesy of Matterport

Matterport scans start at $350, and so far, its use in the UAE has largely been restricted to hotels, galleries, luxury homes and apartments, and other moneyed domains. Each Matterport tour begins with a whiplash-y zoom into a property from a 3D dollhouse view, bringing to mind the opening credits of “Mad Men.” Flying into an apartment in a new megadevelopment, one imagines Don Draper at a pitch meeting: “I’d like to buy the world a three bedroom at the spectacular Creekside 18 twin towers, which preside over a lush, palm tree–lined waterfront setting.” Once inside, navigating is a lot like using Google Street View, augmented with circular places to “stand.” In the age of Covid-19, it’s difficult not to associate these spots with social distancing markings, the kind you might find taped to the floor at your local grocery store. In this particular unit, gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light. In bathroom mirrors, one can catch the boxy Matterport camera on its tripod, looking rather anachronistically like an antique bellows camera. 

The apartment for sale is located at the head of the Dubai Creek — the saltwater inlet that was once the lifeblood of this trading city — not far from a wildlife sanctuary famous for its flamingos. In the distance, users can see that iconic stretch of skyline that features the Burj Khalifa. As for the promised lush waterfront? It hasn’t been built yet. If this were a rendering, the landscaping would be immaculate, down to the little figures of laughing, strolling Arab and white families (almost never South or Southeast Asians). Yet somehow, seeing the jumbled mix of sand, tarps, plastic barriers, and other construction-site detritus outside makes it all feel very real. 

Since prospective buyers and tenants can’t visit houses and apartments in person during the pandemic lockdowns, brokerages such as Dubai-based Allsopp & Allsopp have been using 360-degree virtual tours to close deals. (They had already photographed their listings prior to the lockdown.) In a May 3, 2020, press release, the firm said it completed 677 virtual viewings and 472 virtual market appraisals. Notable sales made entirely from virtual viewings include luxury villas for approximately $1.25 million, $1.91 million, and $6.8 million in various tiny developments, and an apartment overlooking the Dubai Marina for $860,000. (Even in a struggling market, Dubai still offers much better returns on investment than other major cities.)

CEO Lewis Allsopp claims that a virtual appraisal is not dissimilar to an in-person one: the owner notes key features and selling points via video call, and the broker presents market information via a screen-share. As “the appraisal will determine the marketing price of the property,” according to Allsopp, these are essentially very high-stakes Zoom calls. Still, even for the virtual showing, Allsopp recommends owners put in the time to research the market and Kondo their condominiums: “Clear all and any clutter and make the property as light and bright as possible.”    

A virtual tour of an apartment at Creekside 18 by Emaar Properties.

AR and VR tend to be used by the biggest developers with the beefiest marketing budgets, but 360-degree virtual walk-throughs are a common sales tool, especially for real estate firms with satellite offices. But perhaps surprisingly, business has dropped for 3D modelers since Covid-19 struck. “There are simply no orders,” said Gleb Osipov, Mars One hopeful and managing partner of 3DTour, a video production company that offers real estate tours. “A lot of people ask, but it ends with nothing.” Even the bigger players like Matterport itself have fallen on hard times. While the California-based company anticipated an explosion in VR content creation due to Covid-19, business instead has vanished. In April 2020, the firm laid off 90 employees, around a third of its staff. 

It’s worth emphasizing that selling real estate in the UAE relies as much on marketing Dubai — the city, the fantasy, the dream — as the specs and amenities of the building itself. Madhav Dhar, COO of property development company ZaZEN, recalls how a competitor hired retired English football legend Michael Owen to star in a virtual tour of the firm’s properties. The tour functioned both “as an intro to the developer and to pitch Dubai as an investment destination,” Dhar said. “The customer literally walks into a cockpit-styled room with airline seats, and Michael Owen comes up on a big screen and takes you through a first-person tour.” The tactic was an extension of the company’s “Dubai Tour” package, which attempted to entice off-site buyers with two days of sun, sand, and property tours with the firm’s sales team. 

The images that circulate of Dubai today look like something that a game designer could not have even dreamed of just a few decades ago. In science fiction, the techno-orientalism of cyberpunk’s Tokyo-inspired city of the future (think “Blade Runner”) has since given way to the space-Khaleeji image of Dubai. Virtual 3D tours only serve to heighten this hyperreal, rendered effect, even when touring real spaces.

Futurist and strategist Scott Smith believes that the sustained market slump will result in an even greater use of virtual presentation technologies to promote the UAE to foreign buyers. This could be especially true as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, and more prospective owners choose to peruse listings from afar. But on a deeper level, Smith says, the shift toward virtual viewings plays to the UAE’s strengths: “Places like Dubai excel at selling futures to eager buyers — shifting things that don’t yet exist, whether it’s a blockchain project or a block of luxury flats.” And what is real estate but selling a fiction, a fantasy of your future as it could be? “VR and AR,” Smith noted, “make it far easier to hawk a virtual sunset off the balcony of an imaginary tower development.” It echoes a lesson the city teaches all comers: even if something has yet to be built, it can still be sold.