Getting The Whole Picture
By Richard Hooker
The Internet is going to a look a whole lot different in a year or two.
That’s how Victor Ciccarelli sees it. As CEO of CQAdvantage, a computer and technology consulting firm, as well as a highly respected professional photographer, Ciccarelli has spent the last two years creating PhotoTudes, a technology that dramatically cuts the cost and labor associated with 3-D photography. With sharply reduced costs and effort, Ciccarelli sees a future where you can view almost any product for sale on the Web in all its three-dimensional glory, a future where viewing product images on the Web is like picking them up off a shelf and turning them around in your hands.
Low-cost, minimal effort 3-D photography will certainly help solve the most intractable problem in Web retailing: the unforgiving flatness of the medium. All products have a front, a back, bottom, top, and sides, and bricks-and-mortar stores encourage customers to pick products up and explore all these sides. But e-retail can only show flat, static images. And it just doesn’t cut it if you have a flat image of the front, a flat image of the back, a flat image of the right side, and so on. Certain products, like clothing or cars, are about the total, 180 degree picture.
The technology to do this has been around for decades. There’s nothing new about taking 3-D pictures and putting them on the Web. However, the process has always been laborious, time-consuming, and expensive. E-commerce is flat simply because it’s too expensive to be anything else.
Ciccarelli sat down two years ago and tried to solve that cost problem. It soon became apparent that the Gordian Knot in 3-D photography was time. Using turntables and multiple cameras, the best systems took over 10 minutes to snap all the pictures necessary to provide a complete, 3-D view — a veritable eternity in photographic terms. Even with the simplest subjects, this long stretch of time creates a mountain of photo retouching tasks. If the subject happens to be living and breathing, like a person modeling clothes, the headaches, retouching needs, and costs grow exponentially. Most of the inflated costs of 3-D photography were all eaten up in these retouching and photo preparation tasks.
If PhotoTudes was to become a reality, the entire key was reducing the time taken to snap the picture. Do that and most of the additional cost vanishes.
Like many ideas, Ciccarelli’s began in a back room. In fact, in a whole bunch of back rooms.
Passing the time on a transcontinental flight with a magazine, Ciccarelli was struck by an article on how antiquities and artwork were moldering out of existence in museum back rooms. The harsh economic realities of the museum business meant that important historical and artistic artifacts were simply rotting away, waiting for the money and time to preserve them. Some of them were being photographed, but in flat, static images that did not truly reflect their importance or glory. Most of these artifacts would never be seen by anyone but a few museum employees, as invisible to the world as if they were buried in the desert.
“It really bothered me to think we were losing so much of our cultural heritage because we couldn’t get this information out to people,” said Ciccarelli in an interview. “And it came to me: I could make this work. I could design a system that would preserve, even if it’s just an image, the greatest artifacts in human history.”
Funding 100% of the development from CQAdvantage, Ciccarelli began experimenting with a number of computer systems, cameras, and robotics to unravel the time problem and make 3-D photography easier and less expensive. He planned to use this technology to save our cultural heritage from the ravages of time and neglect.
Breaking the Time Barrier
The final product of all this research turned out not to be an invention, but a series of innovations on existing technologies. Combining system improvements, robotics innovations, camera mechanics, and just plain studio savvy, Ciccarelli produced a system that could snap 173 photos from all sides in less than 30 seconds using a turntable and a system of 17 cameras. And size, at least in this case, wouldn’t matter. It’s the same 30 seconds for a diamond ring as for a work truck.
Breaking the time barrier – reducing the snap time from over 10 minutes to less than 30 seconds – almost totally knocked out the most expensive and difficult part of the process: retouching and cleaning up the final images. Ciccarelli’s system can literally produce a Web-publishable image in about the time it takes to snap the images. Combined with a system that automatically reformats the pictures into a Flash movie file or an animated image, the labor involved in a 3-D image is now about the same as would be involved in a 2-D image – pretty much just setting up the shot.
Changing The World One Picture At A Time
Like all great innovations, Ciccarelli’s system has much more to offer than its original purpose. The whole goal of making the system fast was to make it inexpensive enough to be used wide-scale in museums around the world. But the same economics that plague museums – not enough money – also affected what Ciccarelli wanted to do with PhotoTudes.
“I needed to make the company self-supporting,” he explained. “The obvious path was to go where my competitors could never go: high-speed, economical 3-D product photography. No-one else can do this work as fast or as inexpensively as PhotoTudes. And no-one else has a system that can shoot things larger than a table-top item without adding huge expense, things like people, furniture, and cars.”
Facing market competition forced Ciccarelli to envision how manufacturers and retailers can reach their customers using this new technology. As with any innovation, the real challenge is imagining the possibilities for the market, because the market rarely does it for you. Outside of the obvious use of 3-D images on the Web, Ciccarelli sees a future where retailers install kiosks in a store and present fuller and larger lines of merchandise beyond what is on the shelves, without additional inventory and shrinkage costs.
“Manufacturers and retailers can exponentially increase the inventory they offer to customers,” he explains. “Think of it. A clothing store can stock a certain amount of inventory, but double or triple its stock with an in-store kiosk loaded up with 3-D images of models, even models of several different sizes, wearing these clothes. What manufacturer would not want to put their merchandise, even in virtual form, in every store they can?”
Ciccarelli also sees vast changes coming in the trade show circuit. Manufacturers typically travel to trade shows with hundreds or thousands of items. A CD or kiosk with high-quality, low-cost 3D images could help presenters cut their inventory to 50 items or so.
The million-dollar question, however, is who will drive the adoption of this new technology, manufacturers or retailers? Ciccarelli is putting his money down on the manufacturers: “The people who will see the quickest payoff are those who sell products that are used on people, like clothing. I’m betting the early adopters will be the clothing manufacturers who really understand the value of the Web and are already involved in some pretty serious Web distribution and retailing. I see them adopting a marketing model in which they produce Web-ready 3-D images of their entire product line – modeled in 3-D on real people – and distribute them aggressively to online retailers, giving them a significant advantage over their competitors. Other competitive moves, like kiosks or CDs in brick-and-mortar stores and malls, will follow.”
Sitting on a potential gold mine that will revolutionize how manufacturers and retailers reach their customers hasn’t distracted Ciccarelli from his original goal. “I’ve built a great piece of technology, amazing in its simplicity, and now I want to build a history of unique assignments. Ultimately, we’ll reach a level where we can turn our attention to a more philanthropic mission of preserving the antiquities of human culture and scientific research.”
So, when you visit an online store in the not-too-distant future and browse around in the 3-D product images, remember to schedule a visit to an online museum and browse through their 3-D gallery of artifacts previously unavailable to the public. That’s the world Victor Ciccarelli wants to build with PhotoTudes – one picture at a time.
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