Cool Editorials

3D in browsers to re-enchant Internet users

by Jack
4/2/2020

(by Frederic Cavazza) We have just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the web. On this occasion, everyone is focusing on the problems of web governance (fake news, net neutrality…) and not necessarily on what makes it strong: content.

Originally posted (in French) on Frederic Cavazza’s blog here. Translated with Deepl and published here with the author agreement.

Internet users may gradually turn into passive users who will meekly spend their evenings in front of Netflix, Youtube or Instagram. This is why it is important to be concerned about content and the ability of websites to attract and retain the attention of Internet users. And this is where 3D can be very useful, provided it is used wisely.

20 years of evolution of companies’ digital concerns

Last month, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the web. Coming from the world of research (and more particularly from CERN), the web was originally a way for researchers to easily share their work. It then opened up to the general public and private companies to become what we know today: a meta-media on which we can find and do anything and everything.

If the first 10 years of the web were rather confidential, as they were reserved for an elite group of scientists and geeks, the next 20 years were a gigantic arms race for content/service publishers and advertisers. Over the past two decades, the “digital” concerns of brands have gone through different stages of maturation:

  • At the beginning, the priority for brands was to have their website (therefore in HTML);
  • Then, they were concerned about having an original website, which stands out from the competition (hence the popularity of tools to create rich interfaces like Flash);
  • Then, they realized that having a website was not enough, that it was necessary above all to ensure its effectiveness (priority was therefore given to SEO practices, optimization of ergonomics and maximization of the impact of landing pages);
  • Then came the boom of social media and the search for community building (we all know the tremendous growth of Facebook that has resulted);
  • This boom was followed by the tsunami of smartphones with the need to have a website whose layout could be adapted to small screens (the fashion was then responsive design, a set of very advanced coding techniques that pushed companies to use HTML frameworks like Boostrap or Foundation, which strongly contributed to the standardization of websites);
  • The massive use of standardized templates (that end up creating only looking alike websites) and the exponential volume of content available have once again pushed brands to seek to differentiate themselves and capture attention with ever more spectacular visuals (videos and images in full width from the home page, parallax scrolling…).

When we look at the web 20 years ago compare to now (100 Websites That Shaped the Internet as We Know It), we can see how far online sites, services and content have come in all formats… to find themselves in a dead end.

The harsh reality facing brands and organizations today is that it has become extremely difficult to catch the attention of an Internet user, to bring him or her to a website and to get him or her to take action (purchase, register, fill in a form or simply watch some content). That’s why GAFAs are so dominant today: apart from the websites, app, and services of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, Internet users are not interested in much anymore, because they don’t need anything else.

TL;DR

Today, no one pays any attention to anything anymore. This is not a complaint, but the observation that all the attention of Internet users is catched by a handful of mobile applications (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube…). The use of the web by Internet users has gradually been restricted to the largest providers of online content and services: the GAFAs. Apple’s latest Keynote is a perfect illustration: why bother searching for articles, music or movies from different sources when it is possible to do so through “official” applications (Apple doubles down on subscriptions). And as a bonus, if you also pay for content/services through an Apple subscription, or even with an Apple payment card (Apple introduces its own credit card, the Apple Card), you protect yourself from the ugly villains who want to steal your money from your credit card. We have been facing the worst attempt to infantilize Internet users since the creation of the web. Apple is on the way to succeed where AOL and Microsoft have failed (It’s time for an Apple Prime’ subscription bundle).

We are in 2019 and the web suffers from a terrible problem of infobesity. An authentic saturation caused by a continuous flow of articles, messages, notifications… which end up completely monopolizing the attention of Internet users until they annihilate their faculties of concentration and memorization. A study conducted by Microsoft in 2013 showed that the average attention time for an Internet user was 8 seconds: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish. That was in 2013, more than five years ago… So try to imagine what an Internet user’s ability to concentrate must look like today… The subject divides the community (Let’s Debunk the Attention Span Conspiracy), but the struggle is real, you just have to look up from your smartphone and observe to realize it.

All this is characterized by extreme behaviors, including the TL;DR fashion, an abbreviation used in online discussions by those who want to let others know that they have not taken the time to read the different messages (“Too Long; Didn’t Read”), but still want to contribute, thus participating in the cacophony surrounding.

You could ask me “what’s the point of participating in a conversation if you don’t take the time to read what others are saying? ». I don’t know… But still, today, all content/service publishers or advertisers are confronted with the TL;DR syndrome. To hope to catch the attention of Internet users, you really need to offer a differentiating experience, an experience that will make your content/services/messages/offers stand out.

Assuming that we have gone almost to the end of what we could do on a “flat” HTML page; from the most sophisticated (Shockwave) to the most efficient (Pure CSS); to move up a gear, we have to think bigger and add a dimension.

The laborious beginnings of 3D in the browser

Showing 3D in a browser is not really new, 3D content has been available for a long time, but mostly fake 3D: 360° views composed of a multitude of images or 3D animations that are in fact only interactive videos with chapters. What we are talking about here are 3D objects or scenes calculated and displayed in real time, 3D that is neither simulated nor emulated, the one that requires the use of the computer or smartphone graphics chip.

In absolute terms, this is not a problem, since these graphics chips (GPUs) are installed by default for use, but web browsers have been designed to isolate the system (computer) from the network (web). Allowing a website to access the graphics chip (a hardware resource) violates a fundamental rule. It has therefore taken almost 20 years to evolve browsers and provide them with GPU access under the right conditions: performance, stability, security… Without a minimum of protection, simply visiting a website could turn your computer into a Bitcoins mining station (Report Shows Cryptojacking Is Prime Example of Shift Towards Discreet Cyberattacks).

A major milestone has thus been reached with the development of a standard (WebGL, defined by the Khronos Group), the first version of which was published in 2011 and of which I was already writing about 10 years ago: WebGL, the new 3D standard on the web. Since then, the subject of 3D has been regularly discussed on my blog because it is an approach to online content that opens up immense possibilities: The return of 3D revenge in 2012 and 3D even more powerful in your browser thanks to WebGL and WebCL in 2014.

3D is a subject that is now back in fashion thanks to virtual reality and the crazy ambitions of Facebook and Microsoft for what they consider to be the next major iteration of the web (see Facebook Spaces and Windows Mixed Reality). Once again, what we are talking about here is being able to display and interact with 3D content in virtual reality directly in the browser, through a website, without the need of an app.

After a very difficult start (who remembers the great era of 3D Flash?) and some digressions (are e-commerce and 3D compatible?), all the technical conditions are now set for 3D to finally be embedded in web pages: computers and smartphones have more than enough power (with simplified access to hardware resources thanks to APIs), a large bandwidth to download large 3D files (ADSL2+, fiber, 4G and soon 5G), many 3D content libraries (Sketchfab, Poly….), and a standard that is evolving in the right direction (WebXR).

You will notice that it is not only virtual reality that stimulates interest in 3D, thanks to very interesting uses of augmented reality on smartphones with different approaches proposed by SnapChat (Lens Studio), Amazon (Sumerian), Apple (ARKit), Google (ARCore)… All this is very interesting, but this is about making augmented reality with a native app. Fortunately, some people are working hard to be able to do the same things, but with a mobile website. There is also a prototype created by Google’s teams (Chacmool Demo) that illustrates the potential of 3D content in augmented reality directly accessible from a smartphone:

Admit that it’s still something else than displaying simple photos (Is 3D the future of the internet?). Beyond the technological achievement, the goal is to be able to capture and retain the attention of Internet users who have become completely jaded and unable to concentrate for more than a few seconds.

Making the web cool again!

At one time, 3D was a hot topic for e-commerce players (see various initiatives mentioned on this blog: Redfin offers a 3D virtual tour of real estate, 3D Mannequin at eBay and virtual fitting rooms at Carrefour, GarageFuse relaunches the interest of 3D configurators…). I even gave a lecture on this subject: 3D web marketing.

Why take such a risk (production costs, longer loading times…)?
Simply to enhance the presentation of the products. The search for a valuable staging of products is a quite legitimate objective, but the problem is that the production costs of the 3D environment remain high. And I’m not talking about the 3D models, but the module to visualize and interact with the 3D model. Certainly, there are modules to be able to display 3D objects like the Sketchfab Player, but it is a proprietary player and only offers a limited number of interactions.

There are also very sophisticated modules, but they are limited to a particular use, such as the Matterport viewer, which allows you to make virtual tours of real estate.

Otherwise, there are tools to simplify the task such as BabylonJS (a javascript library, so for developers), development tools like Unity3D (to create video games) or Adobe Dimension (to create illustrations). On the other hand, there is nothing to simply create 3D environments where objects can be manipulated. This is where new entrants like Naker are positioning themselves as a content management tool for the 3D web, the WordPress for 3D e-commerce. The promise is strong (“Make the web cool again”), but the use cases are rather interesting: product presentation, showroom, virtual tour, 3D tutorial

Demonstrations that will give your computer fan some exercise, but offer an excellent compromise between loading speed and rich movement and interaction. The idea is not to create the 3D scene with as many polygons as possible but to offer a simple and efficient 3D creation tool.

For a pragmatic approach to 3D

Those who have already practiced 3D know that there is nothing very new in what is presented here (display and manipulation of 3D objects). What is changing are the production time and costs. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn here between 3D applications and augmented reality. Augmented reality applications on your smartphone have been around for 10 years (notably Métro Paris published by the French company PresseElite), but it is possible to design and build equivalent in ten times less time and costs today. The main concern is no longer technical feasibility, but cost.

The ultimate objective is to improve the conversion rate of a product through 3D while offering an unbeatable ROI. And that’s where this type of tool offers an interesting compromise: trading raw power for simplicity and speed of implementation, so it’s no longer a question of trying to achieve a technological feat, an area where the latest versions of 3D engines excel (they now offer photo-realistic rendering…) Unity’s latest demo is a gorgeous sci-fi short starring a lifelike virtual hero and Epic’s stunning new Unreal demos show off high-end ray tracing and photorealism), but to find the perfect compromise between power and accessibility, and to provide the right tools. In short, “good enough” 3D to increase sales. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this perfect compromise has finally been reached, but we are definitely on the right track: differentiating content and services (in real time 3D), but based on standard technologies (HTML, WebGL…) and concerned about ROI.

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About Frederic Cavazza: He has been working in the Internet business for more than 20 years. During his professional career, he worked on numerous website creation or redesign projects that have enabled him to develop a wide range of skills (you can consult his profile on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter). He published two books: Social business and mobile Internet.

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