In his first guest piece for WhichPLM, Gwan Yip, CEO & Co-founder of Code & Craft, takes us into the world of Mixed Reality. Code & Craft is revolutionizing the way fashion and retail industries sell and showcase products around the world by producing photorealistic content that can be rendered in VR, AR and Web 3D experiences.
Whether you’re a fan of the Lawnmower Man, a Kickstarter contributor to the Oculus DK1, have tried to figure out a viable use case for Vuforia’s target images, or agree with Tim Cook’s grand vision on how Augmented Reality will change the world… my bet is that you’ve been exposed in some capacity to Virtual Reality and/or Augmented Reality. If not, then hopefully this article will serve as a warm introduction.
I want to start off with a few disclaimers and agree on some terminology. Firstly, I am not an ‘expert’ in any capacity on pretty much anything I’m about to write about. I genuinely see my team and I as early-to-mid level practitioners with significantly more questions than answers. There are legitimate experts from many different industries who have dedicated their lives to understanding and producing experiences far beyond what I’ll ever be capable of. So please take what I’m saying with a grain of salt, because my opinion could be different within a few weeks, and almost definitely within a few months, of publishing.
Secondly, unless I’m referring specifically to Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) I will be referring to the collective industries as Mixed Reality (MR). I’m not going to get into the semantics of what MR is or isn’t because it’s been widely covered and I personally find it a wasteful/pointless use of time. The simple reason I’ll be using MR is because I don’t want to keep on typing VR/AR.
Where is this all (hopefully) going?
There have been many predictions and forecasts of how big the MR market will be within the next few years. Below are a couple of graphs taken from a great Medium article from Colby Gee that lists many sources.
To summarize, the predictions range from $34 billion to the hundreds of billions with the Retail industry, consistently mentioned in the top 10 industries of highest growth opportunity.
In my opinion, part of the reason there is currently such a huge range is because there has been a lot of investment in MR based on the ‘hype machine’ circa 2015 – 2017.
Unfortunately, there has yet to be any proven and established use case that can clearly and confidently lay out a path to justify any prediction or forecast… and let’s not go down the Pokemon Go rabbit hole, this has also been widely covered so if you’re interested, google John Hanke and what he did at Google and the whole back story to Niantic Labs (this is not me taking anything away from their success, just arguing my opinion their journey isn’t something that’s easily replicable or representative).
So where does that leave us now? Somewhere between the raw excitement created by the promises of tomorrow and trying to justify budget based on a questionable ROI calculation. This phase has been named the ‘Gap of disappointment’ by John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity, a platform that around 70% of all MR experiences are built on. During the keynote at VRLA in 2017 he spoke about the cold, harsh reality MR faces with adoption that no amount of enthusiasm can overcome. The point he made then, which I feel is still true today, was essentially, “The hardware is here, we just need the content.”
“That was my Vietnam – and I was in Vietnam” – Jay Pritchett
My entire career has been spent in the Fashion and Retail industries, predominantly in e-Commerce. I remember how easy it was to drive traffic using Google AdWords by bidding on brand names and messaging a lower price. Once that gravy train/algorithm was fixed, we marketers had to start thinking of other ways to drive and retain customers (apart from using ‘Free Delivery’ which was our emergency ‘sure thing’ campaign… oh, the simpler days). It was around this time the phrase ‘Content is King’ started to make the rounds on blog articles and conferences which lead to entire movements around creating more engaging content on websites, a focus on User Experience, user generated content, personalization and so on.
Fortunately the tools and experience needed to participate in the game were fairly straightforward and accessible. I remember being the graphic designer/tea and coffee boy/office receptionist/telephone answering voice at the startup I was working for. Now don’t get me wrong, I cringe thinking about some of the email creative that went out with my name on it, however over time we managed to develop our understanding of the market and build our customer base, as well as eventually hire a real Graphic Designer (thankfully). But the barrier to entry to build, learn and iterate on content was fairly low. If nobody on your team had any experience or desire to learn from the ample resources online and offline, there was a healthy community of freelancers that knew enough to help.
None of this is true for creating content for MR.
I can honestly say that learning to be somewhat proficient in MR content creation has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do for the following reasons:
1. Where do I start?
You can broadly separate this into two groups ‘Creating the content’ and ‘Visualizing the content’. For the 2D world the gap between the two was fairly minimal to non-existent: you create some content and then display it on a screen or even print it out. With 3D content there are many different ways to create content, be it by hand (hard surface modeling or 3D sculpting), using an industry specific tool to create something like clothing (Clo3D/Browzwear/Optitex), scanning content using a laser scanner or photogrammetry to name a few. Once you have that asset you then need to decide where it’s viewed/rendered e.g. a rendered image, rendered in real-time in the browser or an MR experience. Ideally, you figure this out before making the content due to optimization considerations between pre-rendered vs real-time rendering. I’ll be focusing on the latter, which is how MR experiences are rendered.
What’s particularly challenging at this point in time is that even though the hardware is ‘here’ there aren’t really any out of the box solutions where you can utilize 3D assets, though big tech companies are working on them as we speak (like Apple’s AR Quicklook and Adobe’s Aero). The point is, even if you can/are creating 3D content you’ll probably need developers to build you something custom to visualize the asset in order to justify whatever value proposition you’re trying to prove.
To put it another way, it’s like learning Photoshop to create an email campaign and then having to build the email server provider to send the email.
2. Where can I learn?
The best place to learn is from someone with experience, because you need to first understand the concepts and then the tools. I know this sounds obvious but one of the most challenging things I found getting into the 3D world was not even knowing how to ask a question because I had no basis of understanding on what I was trying to learn. In the 2D world you could piece together the puzzle to some extent that you could at least describe what you’re missing. In the 3D world you’re starting from zero so having a guide that can help feel out the edges is going to save you a lot of time and heartache.
If that’s not realistic or accessible there are good online courses available on Udemy, Udacity and Plurasight. However I urge you to pick a path to either ‘create content’ or ‘visualize content’, even though you’ll need both to some degree, because together they represent a huge amount of information that’s a lot to take in when you’re starting from zero. If it helps, the latter will involve understanding development concepts and/or writing code so if that’s not something you’re interested in then focus on the former.
Who will be the people to take us to the promised land?
So where does this leave us? Hanging. We need people who have the skills to explore the possibilities of where 3D and MR experiences could address viable problems for the Fashion and Retail industries but also the industry experience and know-how to successfully implement new technology into industries that have been historically slow and resistant to innovate.
Ideally, these people would be working internally for brands and retailers so they can navigate the practical and political challenges of such a large change. In my opinion, success requires a well executed ‘Change Management’ strategy just as much as an easily understood value producing product.
In the short-term, these roles will come from hiring from other industries – specifically Gaming, VFX, Architecture and Industrial Design. Though be aware that you’ll be hiring from industries that attract people who have lifelong passions for working within their respective industry, so convincing them to do anything outside of that industry is challenging to say the least. Realistically, these people will operate in a mid-level position and hopefully have the support from Senior Management to place small bets that produce visible returns that lay the foundation for more ambitious projects.
In the long term, I feel a new role that fits somewhere between Technical Designer and 3D Character Artist (Gaming Industry job title) will be the people to lead the charge. I want to stress that these people MUST have a fashion background because, as challenging as 3D is to learn, long term success will come from understanding how 3D and MR can solve Fashion and Retail problems and not how Fashion and Retail can provide a use case to justify 3D and MR.
Our team has been focusing on MR experiences for about 3 years now because we were, and still are, die hard believers in the potential of what it can do to benefit the Fashion and Retail industries. The challenges of pitching and integrating new technology to the these industries hasn’t gotten any easier, yet we believe timing and history are on our side as the necessity to execute smarter, quicker and more efficiently have never been so demanding. Having said that, we also recognize that the window of opportunity to capitalize on the curiosity of MR, in the near future, is closing everyday and the best solution is to work openly and honestly until we figure it out together.