eCommerce has already exploded in 2020, but even that growth – which is pegged at close to 19% this year – could be just the beginning.  The holiday season is upon us, and Deloitte have predicted up to 35% growth in online sales between now and January.

But there’s much more to eCommerce than meets the eye.  We may not realise it, but most photos and videos we see in online catalogues, on digital storefronts, and across social channels are fabrications.  Not manipulated and airbrushed versions of the real thing, originally shot on physical cameras, but completely computer-generated (“CG”) renders.  And this applies to everything from product heroes to packaging – from carefully-staged single shoots to fully-fledged lifestyle campaigns.

artwork by vladimir petkovik

The furniture and automotive industries have been trailblazers here.  IKEA has publicly stated that three-quarters of its catalogue is now computer generated, and the Swedish giant recently began collaborating with digital influencers to blur the lines between real and CG imagery even further.  And almost every advertisement for a car, truck, SUV or EV is conceived, approved, and finalised before the first finished vehicle rolls off the assembly line.

The technical name for this is virtual photography, which makes sense since it involves replacing the tools of commercial photography with all-digital alternatives.  In place of the studio or location, it uses virtual stages – either built from the ground up as 3D environments, or recreated by compositing 3D geometry with location or stock photography.  Instead of lights and reflectors, virtual photography uses controllable light sources that can be moved, untethered to power, in three dimensions.  Rather than a real camera, it simulates the behaviour of lenses and apertures and sensors to generate a digital output that, in the best cases, is indistinguishable from the real thing. And in place of physical products, it uses digital assets, designed, developed, and textured in 3D.

Artwork by Pauline Boiteux

That’s a lot of well-established equipment and processes to replace, so why have the leading home furnishings retailers and automakers made the shift? Even prior to the pandemic, the business cases were clear.

Replacing commercial photography with virtual photography allows brands complete control over every element of a shoot, and redefines the meaning of post-production.  Following a physical photoshoot, on location, only certain elements can be tweaked in post-production: colours, blemishes, cropping and so on.  Working virtually, everything is open to alteration.  Brands can alter colours, materials, and lighting.  They can re-compose and refocus on the fly.  They can swap one product in for another, change colourways or labels or regional variations, or alter other components of the scene to better suit their vision or the market’s demands.

Combined, all of this gives brands and retailers a huge amount of flexibility.  It also helps to align the production of advertising assets with the shipping dates of the products themselves; there is no need to wait for a final production sample to arrive before preparing it for promotion. The benefits this offers to speed and efficiency were compelling in normal circumstances.

image courtesy of house of blue beans

But 2020 has been anything but normal.  And where virtual photography was once a choice made out for the sake of convenience, consistency, and cost, COVID has effectively halted most traditional photography – making the virtual stage the main stage for every industry, but especially for fashion.

The eCommerce explosion

Prior to the pandemic, online sales were growing steadily in the West.  But when the first round of lockdowns began, early this year, the balance between physical stores and digital channels tilted suddenly towards digital.  And although brick-and-mortar stores have reopened in the USA, Europe and China, they have also been shuttered again as autumn fades into winter.

To put the scale of the shift towards into eCommerce into further context, in 2019 there were two trading days where online sales exceeded $2 billion.  In 2020 there have been more than one hundred and thirty of them.  And while the recent promise of widespread vaccination being a possibility in 2021 has created a more positive outlook on the future of physical retail, it looks as though potentially permanent growth in online shopping is now universal across categories and geographies.

Artwork By Pauline Boiteux

This has not, though, been an easy transition for retailers and direct to consumer brands who found themselves suddenly needing to either establish or scale online operations of their own, or to sell through one or more digital marketplaces.  On top of the logistical effort of setting up new payment gateways, fulfilment, and customer support networks, retailers have also been faced with a huge requirement for product photography at a time when setting foot into a studio feels like a distant memory to many.

And this demand for product images and assets is backed by evidence: a survey of online shoppers in the USA, published last year, revealed that close to 70% of consumers have declined to make a purchase due to a lack of product information and images. This translates into a lack of images being a more important decision-making criterion than the price of the product itself being too high.

The same study also demonstrated that the quantity of product images that shoppers expect to see has risen sharply.  In 2016, consumers browsing eCommerce sites expected to see just 3 images of each product; in 2019 that number had risen to somewhere between 5 and 8.  Evidence also suggests that products with 8 images will convert browsers into buyers more often than those with 5.  When it comes to product photography: more matters.

Artwork by INDG

Unlike other industries, though, fashion requires an even higher volume of different images.  While furniture, food and beverage, and consumer goods retailers will publish multiple angles of their products, in different settings and contexts, fashion adds the extra complexity of colour and material variations, sizing, outfit pairings, and other permutations.  And the average brand deals in greater numbers of new styles today than they have in the past, with a shrinking window of time to bring them to market.

Taking account of that turnover of new products, across multiple categories – including apparel, footwear, accessories, beauty, homewares and more – a typical retailer can quickly face a demand for product photography that will quickly outstrip their capacity – not just during COVID, but in the post-pandemic future.

And this is where the additional flexibility, scalability, and efficiency of virtual photography morph from being useful to being transformative.

A different discipline from 3D design

Adoption of 3D in the apparel industry has accelerated as a result of COVID.  With design and development teams working remotely, and collaborative relationships with suppliers being strained past the point where traditional tech-pack-sharing can cope, 3D assets have become essential.

Artwork by Ronan Mahon

Employing 3D for supply chain and in-house purposes, though, is a different prospect to creating images designed to captures shoppers’ attentions – even if they rely on the same 3D assets.  The audience for sample approval or virtual range building wants technical accuracy and flexibility; the online market is making decisions based on much more subjective factors.

So while you may already have a 3D strategy that targets design and development – where mesh and pattern accuracy rule – virtual photography brings in new skillsets and new workflows.  Teams that need to prepare 3D assets for virtual photography need to consider staging, lighting, composition, and the amount of detail required for different assets.  For instance, while every garment that makes it into a line review should be the same quality, the assets used for virtual photography can change – to improve speed and reduce workload – depending on whether they will be the focus of the virtual shoot (the “hero”), or used to add context.

THIS IMAGE AND HEADER Image BOTH courtesy of Deckers

As a result, getting ready to manage the volume, variety, and unique demands of virtual photography is going to require direct to consumer brands and retailers to think differently about 3D – and to build working environments that support a seamless transition from in-house to consumer audiences. 

The material question

The shopper may never know it, but a lot of different technologies contribute to a finished virtual photo.  Each asset was modelled in a 3D CAD solution.  Each environment was conceived, dressed, and lit in staging software such as Adobe Dimension.  Every flat image was rendered offline, i.e. with dedicated compute power that calculates the interplay of light and materials to create more realistic, higher-resolution results.  And every 3D asset, whether it’s a hero product or just there for context, incorporates one or more digital materials.

Aside from the 3D assets themselves, those materials are perhaps the most important element of virtual photography. To create believable results, digital materials must be indistinguishable from the real articles – in their construction, in the way they respond to light, and in the way they behave when draped or stretched over a frame or a digital avatar.  To power quick, agile texturing and photography workflows, they need to be accurate, adaptable and interoperable.

Artwork by ronan mahon

Consider the difference between these two scenarios.  In both, a virtual photography team is staging a campaign for a line of products that come in different configurations and colourways, as well as needing to be staged differently for different geographical markets. 

In one, tweaks to the hero materials need to be made in the original authoring software, or by approaching the supplier; in the other, intuitive sliders can subtly alter parameters like colour and embroidery on the fly.  In one, materials for in-context assets – elements that enhance the scene but are not the primary focus – need to be sourced independently, from generic stock libraries, imported into the staging solution, and cannot be altered once they are in-situ.  In the other, the team can draw from an industry-specific cloud library straight into their staging platform, then adjust the materials in-solution to achieve the perfect look.

One of these scenarios is clearly preferable to the other, and it’s the one that’s supported by a robust, high-fidelity, interoperable format for digital materials – such as SBSAR format created by the Substance by Adobe suite of solutions.  SBSAR materials work in almost any 3D design solution just as seamlessly as they do in the industry-standard rendering suites and game engines.  And Adobe – who have previously written for The Interline about the importance of building fashion-specific materials with real creatives in mind – also supports granular material authoring, texture painting, and procedural generation under the Substance umbrella, alongside the Substance Source material library, which has already received several drops of fashion-specific materials this year.

All of this can be transformative for the processes of digital design and development.  But crucially, in a market where eCommerce is rapidly becoming the channel of choice, the combination of broad compatibility, uncompromising aesthetic fidelity, and flexibility will contribute in a big way towards the holy grail of producing CG images that shoppers accept as being real.

How fashion can leap forward in virtual photography

That holy grail is, as we’ve established, one that other industries have already reached.  It’s highly likely that everyone reading this article has purchased furniture, homewares, jewellery, and even footwear from a 3D render that they did not recognise as being CG.  Critically, though, those industries have also gone a step further and figured out how to make that goal scalable – turning virtual photography into not just a better alternative to commercial photography, but building structures and systems to deliver convincing results at the same time as reducing 3D designers’ workloads.

In other industries where CG is prevalent, the processes that take 3D assets created for in-house use and deploy them in consumer-facing content are grouped together in what’s called a pipeline.  This pipeline transports an input asset (the 3D model created by the design team, together with its associated digital materials) and generates an output asset, which is either a static CG image or a 3D asset that can be embedded on an eCommerce website.

Within that pipeline lie a lot of opportunities for efficiency and automation.  Consider, for example, a leather jacket that comes in different colours, with different zippers and other furniture and embellishments.  Tomorrow’s shoppers will not be satisfied with seeing two different angles of the brown jacket compared to ten of the black, so the same angles and conditions will need to be rendered at least twice – once for each different SKU.  This process can be automated, with composition and lighting only needing to be set once – after which every colourway can be rendered from the same set of angles with no manual intervention.

The time-saving benefits of this kind of automation could be significant on their own, but consider what happens if a source material changes in the final stages of production? Re-rendering every scene, in every permutation, by hand could take a long time. With pipeline automation, swapping the material once would allow your teams to then re-render every view with no additional effort.

Getting to this stage will, to be clear, require brands and retailers to think in new ways about data structuring and workflows – borrowing best practices from other industries that have forged further ahead with virtual photography.  But on top of the benefits we’ve already seen, doing things differently will also open the door to new experiences in augmented reality, where pipeline automation can take over the time-sapping tasks of rendering different level-of-detail models for different use cases and devices.  In fact, in the furniture industry, Wayfair has already cited augmented reality as being the second major benefit of its switch to virtual photography – equal to reducing time and overhead.

Image courtesy of House of Blue Beans

Virtual photography is now poised to make a similar splash in fashion, where it has the potential to not only solve immediate problems, but also to allow organisations to take full advantage of selling digitally.  More than just removing retailers’ reliance on physical resources, virtual photography – done right – will empower them to make the most of their digital resources.

Our partner: Substance by Adobe is the industry standard for texturing and material authoring – a complete suite with everything artists need to create and work with 3D digital materials.  The latest collection of fashion-specific materials in the Substance Source library can be found here.