As the integration of 3D (via photogrammetry, volumetric capture or 3D CAD) into apparel and footwear workflows increases, questions are being asked about the deployability of these 3D assets enterprise-wide from downstream visualisation to upstream design and development purposes.  What is the true value of digital assets, and once a digital representation of a garment, shoe, or accessory is created,  what other possibilities can be built from them?  What are the software solutions available to extract full value from 3D assets – from creating AR product try-on to monetising digital assets through gaming platforms?  What are the current software and infrastructure limitations standing in the way of maximum value extraction?  Where should brands be focusing their efforts to capitalise on 3D?  I explored these and other questions with a number of industry leaders in 3D assets creation and management.

Shopify, a behemoth of eCommerce, has evolved from offering democratized plug and play solutions for local SMEs to powering the online stores of global players like Allbirds, Gymshark and Peloton.  Shopify removes the burden of web design and coding for brands that want to build a direct to consumer presence, but it also now offers 3D asset integration as part of the standard ‘out of the box’ ecommerce offering, which is perhaps the strongest indication to date of the fact that 3D visualisation for consumer-facing applications is here to stay.  The Shopify platform accepts GLB files, which can be viewed within 360 degree viewers or AR plugins in the shopper’s immediate environment.  The latter is a tool that’s already being widely used for furniture and interiors, according to Shopify’s Product Lead, Ryan Smith.  During an interview with Smith he explained that as far as Shopify is concerned, 3D GLB files are as standard as jpeg files, describing them as  “a first asset like any file type.  Shopify, he says, is filling a gap in tech ‘manpower’ by enabling any Shopify store owner to “drag and drop GLB files (converted from OBJ, FBX, STL and other 3D file types) to supercharge their sales with 3D visualisation.  And supercharge it does. 

Smith explained that over the past 5 years the conversion when video is used in place of static images has seen a significant jump. “When buyers saw a video (in place of an image), there was a 60% conversion increase” he said.   In the case of 3D, global accessories brand Rebecca Minkoff introduced 3D models on their product pages and found that visitors who interacted with these models were 44% more likely to add a product to their cart.  They were also 27% more likely to place an order than visitors who didn’t. And when visitors viewed a product in AR, they became 65% more likely to make a purchase.  Whilst this is compelling for these hardgoods products, what are the statistics for apparel, I wonder?

Smith explained that for apparel, “there are more obstacles to product visualisation, including cloth simulation, lighting, drape and body shape.”  This is further complicated by the expectation of shoppers that content should load instantly, meaning that current software solutions and internet infrastructure (in Shopify, assets must load effectively on 3G – the barometer they have set for a good shopping experience) are not yet mature enough to meet apparel shopper expectations.  

The same is not true of wholesale 3D showrooms, however, which many brands have capitalized on during the coronavirus pandemic.  Here, the difference in experience and expectations  between a buyer shopping for wholesale goods in 3D (where they are fulfilling a professional role) is vastly different from that of a browsing consumer in an online store, according to Smith.  As a result, the solution is not as simple as porting the  technology currently powering 3D showrooms to eCommerce solutions, and more work is going to be needed to find optimised solutions for apparel 3D visualisation in eCommerce.  

On the subject of optimising 3D assets for use online, whether it be in wholesale showrooms, ecommerce platforms, social media, or even in PLM, VNTANA has developed proprietary algorithms that reduce file size by over 90% by culling redundant geometric mesh detail and compressing textures (with or without visual fidelity loss) and prepare the files for any desired output platform.  Essentially, their suite of tools take 3D assets in any format and turn them into valuable output files (depending on the intended platform) to drive business imperatives including the aforementioned AR try-on and eCommerce experiences without excessive bandwidth requirements.  During a conversation with co-founder and COO Ben Conway, he explained that their USP is offering file optimisation, rather than simply conversion or 3D viewer capability.  

On the reason behind their push into 3D optimisation, Conway cites the “100’s of millions of dollars (being invested by) Nvidia, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google” as a clear indication that “3D is an inevitability”.  But how are apparel and footwear stakeholders currently using 3D assets, and how is that likely to change?  VNTANA’s typical customer, he says, is a B2B brand selling to retailers and in need of a 3D showroom.  He said they also support content management services via their Flex PLM integration, assisting digital production teams to maximise the value of their 3D assets.

But what are the future gains to be made from extending the value of 3D and reducing the technology and process overheads needed to translate that value to new use cases ?  “3D advertising”, according to Conway.  “(Real-time engine) Unity is the third largest advertiser in the world after Google and Facebook” and “new types of AB testing are possible with 3D”, he says.  Add to this the “rise of younger Chinese consumers wanting a digital-first experience for luxury” and the wider benefits of 3D assets for marketing plays become clearer.  On progress so far in extracting value from 3D assets, Conway views the leaders in this space as “adidas and Nike” followed by “Hugo Boss and Walmart”, noting that the latter has just acquired Zeekit virtual fitting room technology.  With such opportunities and scope, what is stalling 3D adoption to predominantly virtual showrooms, I asked?  “The biggest challenge is education. Brands are hesitant, (asking) “can we really sell in 3D?”.  Additionally, Conway says “eCommerce teams are slammed since Covid, so there is very little bandwidth (for trying 3D solutions).”  FOMO (fear of missing out) is likely to drive adoption, Conway believes, with a number of compelling 3D use cases on the horizon.

While the opportunities for various 3D outputs seem clear, a practical limitation to date has been a lack of interoperability between files for use with different software and hardware, and gaps in the data the files contain.  Gonçalo Cruz, co-founder and CEO of PlatformE, explained that their software solution was created to solve this problem.  “We want to be the orchestrating platform” he told me during an video interview.  “Whichever 3D software you use, we will provide you with an output file that contains the essential 3D information, plus add ons.”  These add ons are  “production logic” which includes essential data for the tech pack and bill of materials, and “retail logic” which allows plug and play for Shopify and brick and mortar commerce, containing prices, stock availability and production availability.  

Further explaining the PlatformE rationale, Cruz said they create “eFashion files” which not only contain visual data, but the “visual representation of something with production and retail data.  The practical element is the connection of these three dots – brand, seller and producer”.  The company has made headway in providing manufacturing on demand capabilities for core product lines including t-shirts, simple dresses and footwear.  But how do brands engage with the platform, and what stage are they at in their 3D journey, I asked?  There are three dominant workflows, according to Cruz.  Brands either send a physical sample, which PlatformE creates a 3D asset from;  a 2D Adobe Illustrator file and image/sketch, or a 3D asset (however 99% of their clients do not use 3D CAD yet).  Whatever garment, sketch or is provided, PlatformE either create and/or convert the information into a file with “eFashion logic applied”.  

Cruz says that PlatformE’s ultimate goal is to address the silos across the supply chain, where he says “creatives utilise many tools… references, mood boards and tech packs (which they) provide to the factory and have no compatibility with Gerber or Lectra CAD software”.  Furthermore he added that some 3D CAD software has emerged from cinema software, so it’s not a natural fit with Lectra, for example”.  “We want to orchestrate the full end-to-end chain communicating between siloes without necessarily having to make anyone utilise the same sets of tools.”

IMAGE FROM GUCCI / TENNIS CLASH

Echoing the words of Ben Conway, Group Marketing Director at PlatformE, Lui Iarocheski explained the creation in 2020 of offshoot company Skinvaders, which converts apparel designs into in-game 3D assets.  Brands are looking to “the new realm of existence popular with Gen Z, to stamp themselves as current and part of the metaverse” he said.  Currently, 3D assets need to be created “manually for each gaming platform” due to the varying “digital skin specifications and shaders (the ‘tone of voice’ and the ‘look and feel’) of the game”.   In this realm, Iarocheski says the resulting assets “need to be endemic to video games, not fashion”.  Skinvaders are creating automated pipelines for creation of 3D assets that meet the requirements of all gaming platforms, taking the manual work out of asset creation.  Their current clients “see them as a door to the metaverse” says Iarocheski, with most using the service as a marketing tool and to gain authority as innovators, or exploring being connected to a new generation of consumers (for example, Gucci X Tennis Clash).  Some brands are explicitly looking to increase their presence in Asia and are looking for apps and games that are popular there to integrate with, according to Iarocheski.  “ROI is secondary” at this stage, he said.  Most brands engaging with Skinvaders typically provide their own 3D assets, have very well developed 3D teams and are already using 3D assets for retail, according to Iarocheski, providing insight that entering into in-game assets may be the preserve of brands already advanced in their 3D transformation journey.   

The opportunities for extracting value from 3D assets span design, production, retail and marketing, but a lack of internal 3D expertise at brands and external data proving 3D’s potential for online retail are hindering maximum value extraction.  Benefits range from efficiency and interoperability (through PlatformE’s eFashion files and VNTANA’s file optimisation) to retail engagement (through 3D viewers and AR tryon) and brand cachet (in-game fashion experiences).  Currently, all pipelines for creation of a full range of usable 3D file outputs require file editing and optimisation best handled in proprietary platforms, accessible by SaaS subscriptions, like those covered in this article.  In particular, it is clear that maximising the value of 3D assets for eCommerce will first require advances in real-time rendering (for 3D apparel cloth simulation) to ensure achievement of the speed and quality that will boost conversion rates in line with the success already seen in hardgoods sectors. 


3D assets used to illustrate this article provided by VNTANA.

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