Here's a nice CBC article on the use of Second Life to market real estate. The writer, Luigi Benetton, hits some of the high points in terms of the limitations of the presentation of virtual reality simulations of real estate space to potential buyers. The images can be grainy, the technology can be off-putting and unreal to some. Whether these kinds of presentations are any more compelling than those dizzying little quicktime movies that realtors embed in their websites, or even nice glossy photographs, is as yet unclear.
The future promises more compelling experiences, though. In my lab, we've built extraordinarily detailed virtual models of different types of house interiors, and users can wander them in immersive headsets producing convincing enough experiences that users reach out to touch imaginary furniture. Connected to monitoring equipment, we can not only see where they go in virtual space and listen to what they say, but we can measure their stress levels and heart rates. I think the real promise of this is not so much finding better ways to sell real estate as in the future of design. How can the design of buildings enhance feeling, happiness, comfort? How can our built settings be used to tune our personalities and bring out the best in each of us? To me, this is much more exciting than a ride in a virtual helicopter.