See It In 3D

Just when you thought it was safe to snap a product photo and add it to your web site, along comes a whole new range of technologies that make a simple photo look like something out of the ’80s.

Each year, the SIGGRAPH convention is “the place” to see what’s coming in computer graphics. Much of what’s displayed at SIGGRAPH is used in producing highly engaging television commercials and movie special effects. Which means in most years, it’s of little interest to mainstream web marketers and site developers.

This year, however, a special segment of the conference was devoted to the use of three-dimensional imagery on the web.

In the past, technologies such as VRML (virtual reality modeling language) were promoted as the future of visualization on the web.

In reality, most of those technologies required too much bandwidth, special software, and very powerful PCs to be practical outside of the online gaming community. But proponents of 3D on the web have overcome many of the limitations and will soon have practical tools and techniques that can help web marketers provide a more enriching experience.

The group called Web3D RoundUP highlighted the web 3D work of over 30 companies and individuals at SIGGRAPH using a live web connection. While many of the demonstrations required special plug-ins, several companies are developing interactive 3D material that runs with current browsers right out of the box over normal connections.

As these new technologies try to move out of the development lab into mainstream web usage, it’s healthy to ask whether these are solutions looking for problems, or if there is real value in being able to control the viewing of products in 3D.

A few consumer products can be enhanced with 3D views, such as furniture, appliances, and clothing. Moving furniture and appliances around in a virtual room allows the consumer to do the space planning that’s hard to do at a bricks and mortar store. Viewing apparel items in various combinations can also help shoppers see how they might look wearing those products.

The best uses for 3D visualization, however, are to show products that are too large to carry to the prospect, too small to show without special instruments, or are hidden within other products – all of which occur more in business-to-business marketing rather than consumer marketing.

The traditional printed sales materials for many industrial products use multiple product photos and drawings to help prospects visualize the capabilities of complex products. It’s expensive to use the same technique for consumer print catalogs, but consumer oriented web sites don’t have the same cost structure. Presently, the question remains whether 3D visualization of consumer products is helpful, or just adds to the expense side of web marketing.

Before moving full-speed into developing 3D web presentations, you can test to see whether your audience would take advantage of the increased product visualization options. One way is to add links to additional product photographs showing different angles, close-ups of special features, and people using the product. Then, monitor traffic to see if visitors spend more time with these products and if the products generate additional revenue.

If you find more detailed visuals result in more traffic, start planning to add these visuals across your entire web site next year. Some of the visualization techniques to consider are additional product photographs, animations of products in use, short videos, and, of course, interactive 3D models.

The increased traffic for product photos doesn’t really answer the question of whether these people are moving toward making a purchase, or if they just like to look at pictures. The more time visitors spend viewing detailed product images, the more likely they are to be serious prospects. However, only by conducting controlled marketing research comparing these people to the rest of the site’s audience is it possible to really learn the bottom line value of these enhanced images.

It will be interesting to see just how quickly web users become comfortable with the new 3D web technologies that allow a shopper to tilt and turn products to see every angle before making a purchase.

As fast as the web moves, it’s best to start planning now. The future of 3D could be here sooner than you think.

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