After speaking with home furnishings company leaders at High Point Market in April, it was clear that most have not only heard about 3D visualization, but have already decided they need it. Larger companies have gone further and hired experienced leaders to build their in-house 3D knowledge.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Everyone should map out a broad view of how they’ll integrate 3D into their business. Combining my professional knowledge of 3D technology and the furniture industry, here are the top five questions you should ask, and analysis for each
1. What 3D model quality do we need?
3D is like photography in that, like digital images, 3D models can exist in high, medium and lower qualities. There are three factors to consider: application, future value and cost.
Lower-quality 3D works for basic fabric draping applications and is a requirement for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). This is due to hardware and bandwidth constraints that exist (for now) in today’s web and mobile devices.
Photorealistic 3D models can replace all photography and can be used in high-resolution configurators that can allow consumers to spin and zoom on details to provide an emotional buying experience that’s otherwise hard to create online.
If you want basic product shots and lifestyle images with no need to zoom, a mid-range 3D model can provide them for
web/mobile and often even print-quality images.
Consumer technology continues to improve at a dramatic pace. AR and VR technologies accept higher-quality 3D content with every new hardware and software version released. Pho- torealism support in AR/VR is likely still 3-5 years away at best. This creates a “moving target” for brands wishing to showcase their products on these platforms.
Photorealistic 3D can hold its value for a decade or more for photography. When produced in a widely used format, this content will also likely be plug-and-play for many of tomorrow’s AR/VR, as well as yet-to-be-invented interactive 3D
As you’d expect, mid-range 3D models won’t have the lifespan of photorealistic models. But if the output is acceptable for your brand, you may be able to align model use to the product selling timeframe.
Regardless of quality, it takes an experienced team to digitize your products. A reasonable rule of thumb for photorealistic content is the product’s list price. Lower-quality content can be found for a fraction of that cost but also has fewer uses.
2. Should we outsource or hire our own team?
Your internal team’s experience in art direction and composition are needed in the 3D process. Developing a fully in-house team to meet the demand could prove daunting, especially as the demand for 3D content continues to increase for furniture and other industries.
You’ll want to begin developing in-house leaders with specific knowledge of 3D and some amount of capability to leverage it on your own. For initial library development, find a development partner who can accelerate your goals and supplement your production even as you establish a 3D team.
If you hire an outsource firm, find one that’s based in your own country. Ensure that the outsource firm can scale to your needs. Boutique firms and small teams can produce photorealistic content, but doing so at scale is much more challenging. And be wary of training programs or universities that claim to train you in 3D in a matter of weeks. Content produced from these resources will always be lower quality.
3. Do we need AR?
No. Big brands are lured to new technology whether they provide real business value or not. Technology analysts like Gartner still have AR in their “trough of disillusionment,” with 5-10 years to reach maturity.
Perhaps the most interesting application of AR—the ability to see if a piece fits in your space—is woefully inaccurate
using today’s mobile hardware. That will change in the years to come. The problem for today’s AR is the lack of processing power of mobile devices to display higher-quality models. This leaves AR in a tough spot for a few more years.
4. What file format(s) should we create?
Unfortunately, there are no set universal standard formats for 3D visualization, but there are clear market leaders and case studies.
Photorealistic and Mid-range 3D
Autodesk’s 3D Max and Chaos Group’s Vray are heavily used by top media and entertainment companies for photorealistic 3D modeling and rendering. Just as they successfully democratized CAD with their flagship product, AutoCAD, Autodesk has a strong foothold on 3D design software for photorealism. Ikea has been using this format since 2006 and finds value in utilizing those models even today.
Many large online retailers are adding AR viewing tools, but currently there are no standards for the content used in them. Asking suppliers to provide dozens of different formats is not a sustainable option. Khronos Group, an independent industry consortium, has recently established an “exploratory group” to begin to define standards for real-time 3D content like those used in AR. Like any consortium of many voices, it may take time for all parties to agree and finalize one or more standard formats.
5. Are we ready for 3D?
Like any new technology, integrating 3D visualization will require adjustment. The process is somewhat like building it physically, with needs for references, specifications and materials ready to go.
To start the process, get your product/SKU lists organized if they aren’t already, including business rules like what materials/fabrics should be available for each. Find and organize any 2D or 3D CAD drawings whenever available. Doing this can greatly expedite 3D development to save you time and money. Also start asking your upholstery suppliers for high resolution scans or ‘repeats’ of the fabrics you use. Doing your homework beforehand can make incorporating this technology much more successful.