3D e-commerce, working in progress yet slowly

There is this trend of gradual shifting 2D online shopping to 3D, or at least we have seen a slew of such startups working in this area and trying to lure brands and retailers into this game. 3D e-commerce actually takes on two levels.

The first level, still viewing 3D objects in a 2D screen. Often you can swirl the product in the 2D screen and have a 360-degree view of the product. Technically speaking, 3D design companies have been around since the 90’s. They usually hire 3D artists using professional software to do the job. The latest technology is hoping to simplify the whole process. We noticed an Israeli startup Hexa is working on an AI powered Saas platform to automatically generate 3D rendering of products just based on two ordinary 2D photos, which should be much less expensive and time-consuming than conventional methods.



The second level, partial to full 3D immersion, or so called AR or VR shopping experience. It would use a device, either your mobile phone or Occulus-like headset to interact with the 3D product in a partially or fully virtual environment. Again we are not talking about something very new here. This kind of solution at least has 5 years history in the market. For instance, a French background AR startup Augment was founded back in 2011, displaying products in 3D model across e-commerce platform in life-like, augmented reality for retailers and manufacturers.



Another example would be Avametric, a San Francisco based, digital 3D software startup founded in 2012. In January 2017, brand Gap collaborated with it to launch a pilot project “DressingRoom” app, combining 3D modeling and virtual fitting. Gap customers can pick a style they like, then select one of the five body shapes, in order to see how virtually the apparel would fit onto their 3D body.



In China, we actually observe a wide adoption of the 3D content of AR among those home decor (especially furniture) merchants on Alibaba e-commerce ecosystem. That is why recently Alibaba debut a platform Hailuo Pier to aggregate all the service providers of 3D modeling&AR, and connect them with its online merchants to implement the technology.


However, costs should still be a concern for many ordinary merchants. We interviewed a local startup “Xiamen 3D cloud technology” established in 2015, specializing in 3D scanning to create VR/AR for e-commerce. It also joined Alibaba’s Hailuo Pier as one of the service providers. Take apparel category as a reference, it charges around RMB600(USD90) per product with the processing time 3~4 days.


As for pulling the trigger of the ultimate 3D VR shopping experience in China, only e-commerce giant Alibaba has the capability. Last year in November Alibaba showcased its Buy+ virtual shopping experience. Alibaba sold 150,000 cardboard VR headsets, similar to Google Cardboard, for RMB 1 (USD 0.15) on Taobao. Customers could use them with Taobao’s app to virtually stroll through and shop Macy’s famed New York flagship. We got to talk with a local startup Plex-VR which is said to be one of the startups participating in Alibaba’s Buy+ VR project. In order to create a vivid 3D simulation in the VR environment, the company is using light field technology, which in fact has existed for a while.  It is the same technology that Magic Leap allegedly uses. It requires crazy hardware and complex setup (at least hundreds of optics composed of light field camera matrix). Such costs are often skyrocketing and probably scare the hell out of lots of low budget clients.



The future of e-commerce should lie in 3D experience. These technologies are aiming to enhance the online shopping experience, increase customer engagement and eventually drive bigger sales. But the cost hurdles still prevent them scaling to volume quickly or gaining market traction within a short period of time.

Author: Cecilia Wu