Technology: The importance of 3D standardization


When was the last time you thought about how easy it was to take and send photos just about anywhere? Now that everyone has a cell phone with a camera, it’s commonly understood that images can be universally shared in standard formats such as JPEG (joint photographic experts group), PNG or TIFF formats.

For its part, JPEG became a standard format in 1992, and its development enabled seamless image transfer for users across the globe to any platform because of its ability to store full-color data as well as making files smaller and easier to transmit and store.

With the advent of web-native augmented reality, the same standardization is now needed for the seamless creation and transmission of 3D assets, according to the members of the Khronos Group, an international consortium of companies, which formed an exploratory group in April to investigate the creation of standards and guidelines for the production and distribution of real-time 3D representations of products.

3D commerce working group

The group added a 3D commerce working group in July made up of 70 companies — many with ties to the home furnishings industry, including manufacturers and retailers such as Wayfair, Ikea, Ethan Allen and Crate & Barrel, along with tech companies such as Cylindo, Marxent, Vertebrae and Simply Augmented — whose unified goal is to create specifications to align the 3D asset workflow for retail from product design and manufacturing, through each stage of retail to end-user delivery.

“This group is unique in the fact that it brings together the technology companies as well as some manufacturers and retailers, which hasn’t really happened before in such a concerted way,” says Neil Trevett, Khronos Group president. “It’s exciting for the technology vendors because they have the actual end users in the group. Having the people deploying this technology out there in the industry, sharing what the problems are and helping to solve them is perfection.”

The aim is for these 3D assets to be experienced realistically and consistently across all platforms such as mobile devices, both Apple (iOS) and Android, social platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest, as well as additional AR and virtual reality solutions that exist now and will continue to develop in the future.

“It’s exciting that we have every kind of company in this group including retailers, many of whom are competitors, but they are putting their differences aside in order to focus on how to take the industry forward,” says Shrenik Sadalgi, head of Wayfair Next and chair of the 3D commerce working group. “There are common pain points across the companies that are problematic for everyone involved. But if we are siloed when determining solutions, it won’t work. We need to work together to create standards that enable the technology to become ubiquitous.”

Trevett says one of the current more-simple issues occurs when 3D models are loaded onto a website, since half of them may be shown upside-down.

“It hasn’t been agreed upon what direction is up, so if you are loading 1,000 products on to a website and have to individually make sure each one is oriented correctly, that can be incredibly time consuming and inefficient,” he says.

How 3D is currently used

In May 2018, Google added AR features directly to its search function in order to “provide visual answers to visual questions,” according to the company. Google says its AR function works with compatible Android and iOS devices allowing users to see 3D object links in search, which will bring up 3D models that can then be dropped into the real world at proper scale. According to Google, developers need to add a few lines of code to make 3D assets appear in its search function.

Houzz, an online source for home remodeling and design, created a platform called View in My Room 3D to enable customers to visualize products in their homes. The platform started with furniture such as sofas, rugs, vanities and bathtubs, and then it expanded to include wall and ceiling products such as art, pendant lights and floor tile.

“One of the biggest challenges when creating this platform is the highly complicated nature of 3D file formats because there are so many dimensions to consider,” says Sally Huang, head of visual technologies at Houzz. “Since we don’t yet have industry standardization, every type of software has different requirements on how they want the 3D information represented.

“For a photorealistic render, we might have to describe a model in one way, which is completely different from how we would have to describe the model for AR purposes,” she adds. “Taking just the AR model: The same model loaded on one piece of software could look completely different on another type of software because the technology platforms are not standardized.”

Swedish furniture retailer Ikea launched its 3D Place app in 2017. With its most recent upgrade, the app now allows customers to try more than 7,000 Ikea products by virtually placing true-to-scale 3D-models in their homes with an accurate impression of size, design and functionality, along with the ability to virtually place several items that look great together vs. just one at a time.

Users can also experience entire room sets with just a few taps, similar to how the showrooms at Ikea are viewed in person.

“One of the main reasons for Ikea to be involved in all of this is that it becomes a costly venture to deliver content to the end consumer,” says Jonas Gustavsson, who leads standards efforts in 3D graphics at Ikea Digital Labs. “We have to generate the viewer ourselves and write different code for each platform whether it’s for mobile, the web or a specific social media site.”

Gustavsson says retailers are not earning money on creating 3D, unlike the profits that game and film companies are currently able to make from 3D entertainment offerings. Retailers need to be able to offer the 3D viewing option free to the consumer in good quality in order to show product that people can understand as easily as possible.

“They need to see it from any angle, and it needs to be truly representative of the product, which will help consumers determine the best product to buy,” he says.

Because Ikea works with several technology vendors on 3D content, the company can have challenges even internally developing 3D assets depending on who is developing the content.

“We have to devise individual solutions for each problem that comes up. We compare them to putting Lego pieces together in different formats depending on the solution that’s needed,” says Martin Enthed, Ikea’s digital lab and IT manager.

Benefits of using 3D

In spite of the current challenges, tech company Marxent says it’s seen promising results from the 3D content it created for Bob’s Discount Furniture. An analysis of nine months of data shows a doubling of the conversion rate and a 20% uptick in average order value.

According to Marxent, “To put the performance in perspective, more than 50% of Bob’s app sessions are now using AR, which helps to increase the average order value by 35%.”

For its part, Wayfair offers a mobile AR experience called View in Room, which allows shoppers to see furniture and décor in their space to understand how products will look and fit in the context of their actual room.

According to Wayfair’s data analysis, people who tried that feature on a product page were 3.4 times more likely to buy. The company began rendering 3D images in 2015 and launched its first AR app in 2016. Wayfair also introduced a VR room planning experience in the company’s first physical retail store that opened earlier this year.

By adding products from Wayfair’s catalog in a digital room, shoppers can play with styles and layouts and then visualize their creations in VR at full scale with the ability to step into their newly designed room without leaving the store.

Early adopters of 3D product viewing on e-commerce site Shopify have also proved to be 2.5 times more likely to convert than those who view traditional image photography of a product, according to the company.

This is all before the JPEG of 3D has been developed to standardize the creation and transmission of these complex 3D assets.

A standardized future

After determining an initial set of standards, members of the Khronos working group will continue to offer new guidelines as the technology evolves. Both Khronos’ Trevett and Ikea’s Enthed believe that progress will be made quickly over the next six months and will more than likely involve more than one solution (similar to the JPEG, PNG and TIFF formats used for images).

“We need to kind of figure out how to let people know how to produce content in the way we want them to produce content. So we will establish some guidelines and some example work flows to help people produce 3D content the right way,” says Wayfair’s Sadalgi.

“Products come in multiple variations. You can get a sofa in different colors, and you can get a bed in different sizes. We want to let the end customer experience the different product options in a very authentic way that the retailer originally intended.”

Members of the working group want to encourage other retail and technology companies in the home furnishings space to join the effort.

“We want to make the important point that the Khronos group is open to any company to join at any time, there is no barrier to entry, and now is a great time to get involved since we are just getting started,” Trevett says. “There is no charge to become a member of the exploratory group, but we do ask that members sign a non-disclosure agreement.”

For many companies that are just starting to get involved in 3D asset creation, according to Trevett, simply being there and listening to the conversations might offer a valuable way of coming up to speed on how to best use 3D to drive increased sales.





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