Using 3-D Photography Online

While watching the Super Bowl (the commercials at least), a clear trend emerged in the entertainment industry: 3-D. Back in the ’50s, 3-D movies were all the rage. Then once every 10 to 15 years, new technologies came on the scene and revived the art of the 3-D movie.

In the last 20 years, though, not much has happened to advance the art or commercial viability of 3-D movies. All of a sudden, though, 3-D is catching on again.

Three Super Bowl commercials were shown in 3-D, as was an episode of “Chuck” that aired the following night. On the big screen, animated 3-D features (such as “Wall-E”) and live-action features (such as “Journey to the Center of the Earth”) have reawakened interest in 3-D, and new methods and technologies have made the 3-D movies and TV easier to create and more pleasing to watch.

Today we’ll talk about how 3-D could affect your online offerings and increase desirability for your products. I’m not talking about virtual worlds, 3-D interfaces, or anything like that. Certainly these kinds of virtual interfaces have their place and might become popular once the visualization technology catches up to those in movies like “Minority Report” and once our 2-D interactive tools (mouse, keyboard, touchscreen) adapt better to 3-D worlds. But for now, these interfaces are still nascent and (while interesting) won’t have an affect on your bottom line.

Instead, I’m talking about using 3-D images to augment existing photography on your Web site. The applications are fairly straightforward, and I’ll list a couple basic uses of 3-D photographs here.

Retail Reality

In the online retail space, products’ touch-and-feel quality has always been an issue. The solution has been multiple angles and views of products, 3-D virtual models to show how clothes fit on a body, and the like. To show how big furniture is, product photography often shows the product in a room with other furniture, to give the photo context. All these certainly help us understand the size and shape of a product, but they’re operating on a two-dimensional plane.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a 3-D picture is worth a million words.

Take, for instance, the following photographs I took. The first is the 2-D version of two products: a mantle display (from Bed Bath & Beyond) and a candle in a vase (a present). You certainly get a sense of these two products from the photo, but you aren’t really able to touch them.

2-D photo display
click to enlarge

Now, get out a pair of 3-D glasses and look at the second photo. If you have a 3-D DVD release of a film, the glasses will most likely work. I’ve encoded the 3-D image so you can view it with standard red-cyan 3-D glasses, arguably the most common color combination. If you don’t have 3-D glasses (the Super Bowl glasses won’t work), I’m sorry!

3-D photo display
click to enlarge

For those who can view the image, you’ll see the products jump to life. The candle vase’s curvature becomes much more attractive, and the size of the mantle display becomes much more apparent. You can practically touch these products through your computer screen.

While this is obviously an effective tool in retail, other industries could benefit from this technology as well.

Real estate companies could feature 3-D walk-throughs of apartments and homes without that horrible fish-eye distortion. Virtual tours are amazingly unrealistic because they distort the perspective so much just trying to make the rooms appear 3-D.

3-D Video Too

It’s also possible to create 3-D movies that can be viewed online using the same glasses. A video, while more difficult to produce, would really help the real estate example and any products that need to be seen over time, such as something that moves or lights up.


This column proves one thing off the bat: most of you won’t be able to see the 3-D image because you don’t have 3-D glasses. So while this is a good idea, it can’t be a pervasive technology just yet. But as 3-D catches on in the movies and in DVDs, 3-D glasses could become much more commonplace in users’ homes.

And because 3-D glasses cost about $0.25 wholesale, it’s simple for your company to brand a pair of glasses and give them away at your store or ship them to customers. It’s a relatively minor expense — and a major differentiator in the market place.

Thoughts, questions, comments? Leave them below or contact me directly!

Until next time…


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