How 3D visualisation will change the shape of e-commerce
Shopping online can be a disappointing experience. Sure, it's convenient, but often the best result we can hope for is some reasonably accurate images of the product combined with a few words on why you should buy it.
But things are looking to improve. The onset of visualisation technology – across multiple user interfaces – is set to drive a revolution in how we transact online. Let's peer into the nascent world of 3D e-commerce.
From web to wearables
Introducing 3D, or "visual" e-commerce is more than simply including a 3D image of a product on a website.
The potential for 3D e-commerce is huge. Everything from interactive 3D web content to augmented and virtual reality using wearable computers can be seen as potential channels for sellers to reach buyers.
Ann Nolan, co-founder of Australian visualisation start up Snobal.io says there is no standard, or agreed, definition of 3D e-commerce because the area is still emerging and terms like "vCommerce" (virtual commerce), virtual stores and 3D e-commerce are used interchangeably.
There is also a difference between 360-degree immersion using VR headsets and enabling a customer to experience a virtual 3D environment delivered via a computing device, much like how today's virtual reality games are experienced.
"We are at an early stage of the VR industry's development so while awareness is growing of VR and e-commerce and how they may interact, retailers thinking of how VR will impact their business is slower than it probably should be given the potential impact it will have," Nolan says.
"The VR and AR industry is projected to be huge so if you're in retail [or] any business, for example, workplace training, you need to be collaborating VR companies to test and explore how VR is going to impact your business or how you can leverage it to gain competitive advantage and connect with customers."
At Data61's Quantitative Imaging unit, senior experimental scientist and research engineer, Matt Adcock says in the longer term, 3D e-commerce will start to refer to many more facets of online business.
"3D technologies will help in customer assistance, community support forums, product search engines, review websites, and even online services such as home design and maintenance advice," he says.
2D e-commerce ready for shake up
Even though e-commerce is a fast-growing industry, the main user interface of 2D webpages hasn't changed much in 20 years, according to Nolan.
"Online shopping is still very much a flat click and order 'push content' experience with very little interaction or product visualisation and zero social interaction or storytelling capability," she says. "It has been developed from legacy print media knowledge and requirements."
"Comprehending 2D graphical context is something that has to be taught whereas we're 'hardwired' to comprehend 3D environments from birth. It's only recently that technology has caught up with our expectations of computer generated, real time 3D experiences – now we can generate amazing immersive environments which can be shared globally on standard computing hardware."
With 3D virtual e-commerce, a retailer isn't limited by real world constraints, including the costs of running a bricks-and-mortar store.
"A retailer can have a virtual 3D e-commerce environment created that provides a graphical 3D representation or experience of the story that the retailer wants to create to illustrate the product or brand," Nolan says.
Data61's Adcock says with web browsers no longer needing plugins to view 3D content we are starting to see more and more companies put full 3D scans of their products online, resulting in a better experience for the shopper.
"When you buy something online you often end up searching and sifting through many options on many different websites, and each of those websites will probably have taken a set of photos showing a small number of perspectives," Adcock says. "With a 3D model, you get to choose what part of the object you'd like to see. This interactive experience means you can much more easily compare between the items on your shortlist."
3D visuals all style at Shoes of Prey
In addition to offering a more visual shopping experience, 3D technology can be applied to allow more product choice for customers.
At Shoes of Prey, shoppers are greeted with a design-your-own shoe platform that uses 3D design technology that allows people to create the exact shoe they want.
Customers can choose from trillions of combinations of styles, colours and fabrics, and design a unique pair of shoes that meets their style and comfort preferences.
Once the order is placed, the shoes are made in a dedicated factory and delivered to the customer's door.
Jodie Fox, co-founder of Shoes of Prey, told techradar the 3D technology used for the online shoe design tool allows the customer to visualise their creation in the most realistic way possible, before they commit to ordering.
"Shoppers are becoming more sustainably minded and as a result, I think we're going to see 3D technology become more mainstream in the e-commerce industry for consumers, designers and manufacturers," Fox says.
"Customers often prefer something unique over the mass-produced designs stocked in high-end stores, and as a result we're seeing customisation become more popular in both Australia and the US in particular."
For people not confident creating and placing an order online Shoes of Prey has created a combined online-offline business model with physical "design studios" using the 3D technology in five stores across the US.
Another shoe company, TOMS, recently launched at 3D VR experience in Australia with its launch into MYER. Customers can experience a TOMS Giving Trip in Peru, which shows how their purchase of TOMS shoes will aid the life of a child with the gift of a new pair of shoes.
Wearables to bring 3D e-commerce to life
With wearable technology and computers becoming more pervasive, there is an emerging platform for buying something online facilitated by visualising and interacting with it first.
"Using AR glasses, or even a smartphone, you can overlay selected virtual 3D objects from within your own home to see how they might look when placed in different positions," according to Matt Adcock.
Adcock says 2016 will see the release of consumer VR headsets with "App Stores" from which people can download immersive experiences and online retailers will be able to let potential customers choose and experience products before they purchase.
Nolan sees a future where wearables will be as common as mobile phones, powering a range of 3D e-commerce applications.
"The infrastructure to provide content will mature in due course and we'll see people with the tools to easily, cost effectively and quickly generate their own VR content without the need for expert technical knowledge," she says.
"I also imagine there will be an adoption of larger, interactive digital displays – digital wallpaper if you like – and the uptake of CAVEs (computer automatic virtual environments) for both domestic and retail use."
"There is a lot of focus on the moment on VR hardware, but to truly leverage the potential of the market VR needs to also get on top of content creation."