To take greatest advantage of emerging digital retail opportunities, it’s necessary to create 3D photorealistic representations of physical products. Here’s an overview of several ways to get started.
Why and Why Now?
They were a long time in coming, and now the enabling technologies have arrived. There are clear and compelling customer and brand benefits of converting a 2D catalog of photos to 3D models for use on a retail website, mobile app and other experiential contexts. This transformation creates a better/more engaging user experience, increased sales, a reduction of returns and shipping costs, as well as significant savings compared to traditional product photography. These and other benefits are covered in greater detail in recent NFR coverage of 3D shopping and the virtual product catalog.
But what do you need to actually do to prepare your catalog? Below are some key practical considerations and steps you’ll need to plan before embarking on the process.
Creating Your Models
Before you can get started on converting your catalog, you’ll need to decide which 3D modeling method works best for your needs. There are three basic methods available: 3D scanning, photogrammetry, and making use of a professional 3D designer. As in all things, there are pros and cons to each that you’ll want to consider carefully before making your decision.
- 3D Scanning with Dedicated Equipment
This process uses light projected onto an object from various angles to capture highly accurate “point clouds,” which can then be used to reconstruct a 3D image. The scanner can measure fine details of the object, though does a better job on objects with distinct texture and that are matte, as opposed to smooth, shiny objects. 3D scanners are also sensitive to light — too much ambient light can distort the data — and so are best used indoors, in a room where lighting can be controlled. Since a 3D scanner has to interact with a real-world object, using one can be a good option for creating 3D models of products that already exist.
Pros include: Fast 3D model generation; portable scanners allow for scanning on-site without the need to transport items; top scanners can achieve eye-catching, photorealistic quality.
Some of the cons are: High-quality scanners are expensive — they can run in the tens of thousands of dollars — and need to be replaced regularly to keep up with technology; 3D modeling requires access to the entire catalog of physical items; scanner-based 3D models often have inaccurate geometry, include gaps, and suffer from other inaccuracies that require physical adjustments…which, in turn, take time and some level of design expertise to accomplish.
If you have a smaller catalog, access to the actual objects in the catalog, space for a controlled studio, the funds to purchase a scanner, and time and expertise to finesse the 3D model outcomes, 3D scanning may be the right method to choose.
In photogrammetry, a standard high-end digital camera is used to take photographs of an object from many angles and then specialized software stitches together the photos and detects overlapping patterns to create a 3D model of the photographed object. Technically, photogrammetry imitates the stereoscopy of the binocular human vision, using the various photograph angles to collect data regarding the shape, volume, and depth of the subject. Unlike with laser 3D scanning, you can photograph large objects out in the world, although professional 3D photogrammetry generally will happen in a controlled studio environment. In addition, all you need is a collection of existing photographs of an object to create the 3D model, not the actual object itself. Like laser 3D scanning, however, the software does not produce perfect models, so there is some manual tweaking involved before the 3D model is usable.
There are a number of pros: Fast 3D model generation; flexibility to make 3D models of larger objects (e.g. a piece of farm equipment or large furniture item) that would never fit on a portable laser scanner; the ability to achieve exceptional texture detail and quality — Professional DSLR cameras can capture high resolution top quality textures, while 3D scanners usually capture low-quality textures or cannot capture textures at all; and a quick and easily repeatable scanning process when properly set up, allowing you to make short work of your catalog.
The cons? While any phone camera will suffice on the low end, high-quality professional 3D photogrammetry requires a rig of multiple high-end cameras and studio lighting, which can become expensive; the process requires around 100 slightly-overlapping photos of each object, which can be time-consuming especially if you only have one camera; photogrammetry software doesn’t build the model in real-time like laser 3D scanning does, so you may discover that you’ve missed a section or need to redo a section of your object after you’ve taken the time to upload all your pictures; unless done on a professional level, photogrammetry is less accurate and consistent than laser 3D scanning, due to equipment variability.
If you have a smaller catalog of photos, are on somewhat of a budget or need to photograph objects outside — especially if they are large — 3D photogrammetry can be a great solution for your 3D conversion needs.
3. Professional 3D Design
Let’s shift from photographic tools to human skills. A professional 3D designer uses a combination of skill and specialized 3D modeling software to create photorealistic 3D models using pictures along with product dimensions. Using a trained 3D designer to convert your 2D catalog to 3D models can speed time-to-market as the designer does not need access to the physical items and also requires only several images mentioned to “infer” how the object should look. In addition — and this is sometimes critical — the product doesn’t even have to exist yet; a designer can create 3D models based simply on digital prototypes.
Some pros to using a 3D designer: A designer can create models using even as few as three to five photos from a basic camera or cell phone — no need for expensive technology or to spend a significant amount of time taking dozens of well-planned photographs; each model undergoes a quality assurance process to make sure it’s a reliable match to the original 2D photo; technology advancements in image recognition and AI can be used to partially automate and speed up the 3D modeling process.
On the other hand, cons include: Scalability — it requires a large team of skilled designers or a number of partner vendors to convert large amounts of SKUs; ensuring consistent quality and visual appearance across 3D models developed by multiple 3D artists might be a challenge, unless rigorous quality assurance procedures are in place.
If you have a larger catalog or time is of the essence — and/or if you don’t have access to physical products — it may be worth partnering with a vendor (such as CGTrader) who can supply you with the human 3D design skills necessary to develop a large number of SKUs and provide quality assurance. CGTrader allows enterprise customers and online retailers to transform their 2D product images into photorealistic 3D models for Augmented Reality and other 3D customer experiences. CGTrader is also a Shopify 3D Expert enabling merchants to create immersive shopping experiences with realistic 3D versions of their products.
Models, check. Now what?
Once you’ve determined which conversion process from 2D images to 3D models will be the optimal fit for your retail business, there are a few other things to consider in preparation for converting your catalog and upgrading your website (as well as mobile app and potentially other customer touchpoints):
- The integration of 3D images to an existing website is not simply about swapping a photo for a model (though you can); to maximize on the benefits, you’ll want to create a new, engaging user experience paradigm that includes a variety of options for looking at the model online: angles, colors, location in room, etc.
- You’ll need to consider your UI/UX and omnichannel strategy; namely, how 3D & AR capability will be delivered to the end client on different platforms. Laptop/desktop users will enjoy the benefits of 3D viewers and product configurators. 3D viewers and configurators will not look as impressive on the smaller screens of mobile devices, though mobile enables a more immersive AR experience. It’s important to consider whether or not it’s sufficient to present products in a visual vacuum, or if you need to create a collection of backgrounds — or even the ability for customers to add their own.
- This isn’t just about modernizing your website — it’s also about driving customer engagement and sales. You’ll want to set up data points and tracking to compare before and after as they relate to cart conversion, purchase conversion, time on-site, product return rate, and more. As your customers get familiar with experiencing your products in 3D, you’ll be able to determine how to fine-tune your offerings to increase sales.
Real-time 3D is revolutionizing online retail, becoming a ‘must-have’ and no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ for your website. Now’s the time to take the plunge and convert 2D images to 3D models so you can upgrade the way customers experience your products and decide to purchase. There are a number of ways to smoothly and efficiently accomplish the conversion of your catalog; the process can be straightforward and simple, especially if you choose to partner with 3D design experts. Unless you have a large, dedicated and trained team in place, outsourcing both the initial and ongoing processes will minimize the investment of time and money in 3D model preparation, and improve time to market.