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David Wischniewski

The potential of CGI in e-commerce

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June 29, 2023

Product images from computers: CGI demand is growing

Instead of traditionally produced photos, many e-commerce companies, including Amazon, Ikea, Obi, Otto and Wayfair, are already using digitally generated images and visualizations on a large scale. Restrictions due to the corona crisis have recently made typical product photography more difficult, which is why computer-aided image generation has once again become more relevant. About a year ago, we talked about the potential of computer-generated images for online shops with Tobias Nientiedt, head of the Otto Content Lab, and David Wischniewski, co-founder and CEO of RenderThat, and have recently looked back at how the technology has recently developed.

Computer Generated Imagery - From the film industry to the product image

The technology behind a virtual image is called CGI. The abbreviation stands for “Computer Generated Imagery” and means, roughly speaking, that the illustrations or visualizations are created on a computer. The technical term originally comes from film production and describes computer animation in film art: “The technology has its origins in the seventies. In the first Jurassic Park film and in the first Star Wars flicks, CGI was already used to depict what would otherwise not have been shown,” explains Otto's CGI expert Tobias Nientiedt.

The automotive industry initially discovered that CGI could also be used for product images. The basis for image production via CGI is the design and construction data of the vehicles, so-called CAD data, and these were already available to car manufacturers. Another factor was also decisive, according to Nientiedt: “In the automotive industry in particular, a lot of money was spent on creating images — for example, to block airspaces especially for photo shoots so that no one could see those models before that had not yet been presented. Creating product images via CGI is easier, faster and more cost-effective. ”

Technology has evolved so that content for online shops can now be produced. Otto, for example, made his first steps with CGI in 2016.

After the first test images had been produced, it soon became clear that just by producing these images, the company is not even exploiting the added value of this technology. Tobias Nientiedt has therefore been with Otto for two and a half years and is working on the topic here as an expert. By the end of fiscal year 2021/22, Otto wants to display 70 percent of its entire furniture range and 35 percent of all articles in the home and home textiles sector using CGI — at least.

To this end, the company invested 2.6 million euros in an internal CGI database last year and has since expanded once again. “We are in the process of setting up and expanding the database — and since it's only getting bigger at best, it will probably never be completely finished,” says the Otto CGI professional. The Hamburg-based online retailer has created the foundations for scalable CGI production and now wants to gradually increase this. “Our focus is still on the home & living range, but there are also initial discussions to present other product ranges. ”

“In reality, it is not even possible to photograph all variants”

What actually makes CGI so interesting for e-commerce? “With CGI, any product can be digitized and placed in any environment. For example, the digital twin of a bed can easily be placed in a youth or parents' room and adapted to the needs of the target group. It is precisely this flexibility that means that many companies are already choosing CGI over traditional photography,” says David Wischniewski, CEO of IT service provider RenderThat, which specializes in CGI.

Especially when many different material or form variants of a piece of furniture are to be represented, it gets complicated with classic photography. Nientiedt gives an example: “Let's say we have 100 kitchens on offer. Each of these kitchens is available with eight worktops, eight body colors, eight fronts and eight handles. In order to be able to display all the resulting variants and present them to the customer as a product photo in the shop, more than 600,000 photos would have to be created. In reality, that is not possible — with CGI it is. ”

Otto's online shop offers more than 100,000 pieces of furniture and home accessories. It has long been the Group's stated goal to turn from a retailer to a platform with a focus on Home & Living. As a result, Otto is gaining more and more partners who offer their goods on and recently also introduced an automated connection for retailers. With more and more partners, the number of products and product variants in the online shop is increasing rapidly — and, accordingly, the need to visualize them.

Digital artists instead of classic photographers — how a picture is created with CGI

The digital product images are created by CGI artists. The specialists construct furniture like a classic furniture maker — but with the help of very complex 3D programs and rendering engines. As it were, they must also have expertise in photography and image processing. The beginning of a CGI piece of furniture is usually a cube in a 3D design program. The CGI artist then deforms it in several steps — until it finally becomes a 100% digital image of the real piece of furniture, the so-called digital twin.

In a next step, materials are placed on the surfaces of the digitally constructed 3D piece of furniture. “The materials should behave in virtual space in the same way as in reality,” says Nientiedt. For this purpose, the materials are not picked up via a flatbed scan, but are also scanned in depth. In this way, the three-dimensional surface structure can be digitized. As a result, materials such as upholstery, wood or metal ultimately look very real.

The environment is then created in which the respective piece of furniture is presented. “You can imagine it like a typical photo shoot, only virtually: There is a room in which the furniture is placed. It also contains light sources and shadow reflections, for example. You can also set the aperture or ISO number just like on a camera.” Finally, this image is finally calculated using render engines, i.e. a graphic is created from all the design data. This is then given the finishing touch with image processing programs, such as Photohop.

In the case of more complex cabinets or even kitchen fronts, visualizations of each individual part are created, which can then even be assembled automatically as required. “This saves an enormous amount of time, and colors or materials that are new to the range or are no longer available can be easily added or deleted,” explains Renderthat CEO Wischniewski about the process.

CGI — the basis for augmented reality

For customers, the difference between a real photo and a product image created using CGI is ultimately not or barely visible. “Our goal is to digitally create images with the same image quality. A high-quality image created on a computer is indistinguishable from a photo — only the production process is different,” says Nientiedt.

Wischniewski also confirms this: “With CGI, the image quality can be tailored precisely to requirements,” but CGI can do even more, as he explains: “It is easy to continue using the digital twins in augmented reality or virtual reality apps. With augmented reality (AR), it is possible to place virtual elements in the real world. “That was also a major reason for OTTO to address the issue comprehensively in-house: “With the technology, customers have the opportunity to place various pieces of furniture in their own four walls before they buy,” says Nientiedt.

Try out furniture in your own home before buying — AR makes it possible

The idea that customers can use technical aids to imaginatively place furniture in their own homes is not new. As early as 2013, Ikea had a function in its “catalog app” that allowed selected products to be placed virtually in a previously selected environment: Customers had to place the Ikea catalog in the room where the piece of furniture should theoretically be located. The area was then scanned using the smartphone camera and the desired piece of furniture appeared on the smartphone display in the recorded environment.

In autumn 2017, Ikea launched a successor, the Ikea Place app, which is based on AR technology and already displays several thousand products. “Ikea wants to reach and interact with even more people — no matter where they are. This is made possible, among other things, by augmented reality,” an Ikea spokesperson explained to OnlinehändlerNews in mid-2019 about the question of why the furniture store opted for an AR app. “Many people are uncertain about furnishing or redesigning their homes. Especially when it comes to how a new piece of furniture matches what they already have at home. We present inspiring ideas and solutions online and in our furniture stores. However, it is difficult to imagine them in your own home. Buying a sofa, for example, is a big investment. Therefore, you want to be sure of your choice. With the help of the app, we want to make it easier for many people to imagine home furnishing products.” In autumn 2019, 3,000 products could already be visualized in their own homes using the app.

Otto uses a similar concept in his YourHome app, where an AR function is also available for several thousand products. Otto customers already appreciate this service. For example, the purchase probability is significantly higher if customers have previously placed the desired piece of furniture themselves in their own living room using the AR application in the app. “The response remains pleasantly positive and we are satisfied. This is another reason why the number of 3D models that we produce continues to grow every month,” says Tobias Nientiedt about the latest development of the app. Amazon also enables AR viewing of products via an app — such as a television on the wall at home — and Google presents AR models in the search, adds RenderThat CEO Wischniewski.

The bottom line is that comprehensive, authentic visual content represents great added value for customers and has a significant or positive influence on their purchase decision. Otto wants exactly this added value with CGI and other technologies in online furniture retail achieve and take this into account in the cost-benefit calculation as well. “As more and more content is required, production costs are increasing. With CGI, this mass of content can be created efficiently,” says Nientiedt and adds: “If you calculate it down to a single product, the CGI display is probably more expensive, as the basic model must first be built in 3D. But with the mass of product photos that OTTO requires, CGI is significantly cheaper. ”

Will there soon be nothing possible without CGI and augmented reality in online retail?

When asked whether online retailers need CGI to remain competitive, David Wischniewski had a clear answer just over a year ago: “Definitely. Many companies contact us because traditional methods such as photo shoots are too lengthy, expensive and inflexible for them. In addition, taking pictures is impracticable, especially with larger amounts of images.” According to his current assessment, CGI is also becoming increasingly important. “In a dynamic market, both online and offline retailers are feeling ever greater cost and time pressure. At the same time, customers today want a more immersive product experience than ever before. You can expect comprehensive presentations in a realistic environment. 3D visualizations using CGI meet these increased demands perfectly,” explains the RenderThat CEO.

And Nientiedt's assessment was also clear back then: “We are firmly convinced that in a few years, only retailers that also offer augmented reality will sell furniture online, as you won't buy any other furniture later on. CGI is the basis for AR, so there's no getting around it.” He can also see increased interest in the technology. “Demand has become even greater and will probably continue to increase; the topic and technology are becoming more and more relevant. There are more and more new services and services based on this technology. ”

Expenses and costs for CGI content

Producing CGI content yourself isn't that easy for smaller retailers. Setting up an appropriate production landscape requires effort and major investments. RenderThat's exactly what the business model is based on. “For mattress manufacturer Recticel Schlafkomfort (Schlaraffia), for example, we have designed a process that enables us to create digital twins of mattresses during product development. This creates image material that can be used for trade fairs or marketing measures even before they are completed,” explains Wischniewski. “The costs depend heavily on the scope of visualization. Simple product visualizations are relatively inexpensive and cost a few hundred euros per image. ”

For larger companies, however, RenderThat also goes a step further and establishes automated CGI solutions. “But once the pipeline is integrated, it reduces product visualization costs down to the cent.” Otto lets other retailers and suppliers from the furniture industry benefit from his experience. Hamburgers recently invested again in the CGI production service in order to establish it for platform partners as well. However, they also offer the service to other companies.

Is classic product photography dying out?

However, by no means all retailers have anything to do with this topic or actually want to switch. “There are often long-standing workflows with photographers and other partners, while switching to CGI would of course involve additional effort in the beginning,” says Wischniewski from experience.

CGI is also not suitable for all industries; there are hurdles in the fashion sector, for example. For example, virtual product images can be created on the basis of digital patterns that some designers already use, “but fashion thrives on the fact that the products can be seen on a person,” says Nientiedt. It is possible to create virtual images of people, but “these images often lack vitality.” According to the RenderThat boss, this is a matter of time, because right now: “With the help of automated rendering processes and artificial intelligence (AI), 'CGI outfits' can be displayed on people — simply and photorealistically. A person is first photographed wearing neutral underwear. Then it is the AI's turn: it automatically projects a wide variety of clothes onto the model and achieves amazing results in the process. In the medium term, the issue of photocopying models will even be eliminated, as these too can be created automatically and photorealistically. ”

Imaging via CGI has so far been less relevant for electrical products such as cameras or cell phones, because technical data is usually more important than presenting it in different spatial contexts. If the cost of image generation with CGI is therefore still particularly high or significantly higher than the actual benefits, classic photography could remain an effective means of product visualization.

A more detailed Comparing the two disciplines of 3D visualization and product photography However, provides many advantages for the new 3D-generated images.

Demand for CGI production is growing

However, in principle, almost every product is suitable for CGI production, says Wischniewski: “So far, we haven't had to cancel a single project due to excessive complexity.” And more and more retailers are now using CGI content. “The first quarter of 2020 was already the best quarter in our company's history at the beginning of February. The second quarter will also be similarly successful — despite Corona,” he answers when asked how the demand they observed for these technologies on the market has recently changed. Overall, the trend is clearly upwards: “We have just founded our fourth location and soon after even our fifth location. ”

The observations made by Otto's CGI expert are similar: “We are very satisfied with the interest and demand, and the response has been positive. In times of corona, fully digital image production through CGI is becoming increasingly relevant. This can also be felt on the CGI market. ”

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