People

Sketchfab’s CEO on building the YouTube for 3D files

Alban Denoyel thinks he can succeed where Google failed and become an essential content provider for future AR glasses.

Sketchfab’s CEO on building the YouTube for 3D files

A Brooklyn bathrooms mirror, uploaded to Sketchfab.

Image: Sketchfab

Editors' note: Epic Games acquired Sketchfab on July 21, 2021. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Google's recent announcement that it was shutting down its 3D file repository Poly caught many 3D artists and enthusiasts by surprise. How could a corporate giant like Google give up on 3D, just as AR and VR are growing in popularity?

Sketchfab CEO Alban Denoyel, however, was hardly shocked.

Running a de facto competitor, Denoyel had kept a close eye on Poly over the years, and noticed that it hadn't gotten a whole lot of traction. For instance, when Tesla announced its Cybertruck in late 2019, artists uploaded hundreds of 3D renditions of the futuristic car to Sketchfab within hours. To this day, there are just seven 3D Cybertruck models on Poly.

In a recent conversation with Protocol, Denoyel explained why Sketchfab is succeeding where Google failed, how the company shifted gears when it became apparent that building a YouTube for 3D files would take a whole lot longer than expected and the role AR and VR play for Sketchfab now and in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Were you surprised when Google announced the shut-down of Poly?

No, I can't say I was surprised. It never seemed to have had as much traction as Google would want. It doesn't mean it didn't get traction, it was just not Google scale.

They launched it under the umbrella of Google's mission to organize the world's information, with the goal to organize the world's 3D information. They shut it down because they didn't achieve that mission. It doesn't mean that this mission cannot be achieved, because we are achieving it at Sketchfab.

What was the original impetus to launch Sketchfab all the way back in 2012?

If you create something, you need to be able to share it online, to publish. If you create a video, you publish it on YouTube. If you create a slide, you share it on SlideShare. If it's a sound, on SoundCloud. If it's code, on GitHub. Each file format gave birth to a publishing platform able to read and display it.

For the 3D world, this wasn't technically possible before WebGL, which came as a new initiative from Mozilla. My co-founder [Sketchfab CTO Cedric Pinson] was one of the first programmers on earth to work on WebGL. He was working for the gaming industry, where 3D artists shared 2D screenshots or videos of their 3D files for lack of a better way.

So he [built] an MVP, solving a problem he had himself. I met him a few months later, and had more business background. I could see the potential of 3D, [and realized that] for this file format, there was no platform to publish, share and embed it.

Back then, you wanted to create something akin to a YouTube for 3D. How did that mission change over time?

The YouTube model is an ad-based business model, which works if you are mass-market. When we started, we were able to raise money on this YouTube vision, betting on 3D capture getting more mainstream, which meant we didn't have to worry about monetization in the short term. Just focus on growth.

As we progressed, it became apparent that the YouTube vision of content creation and consumption becoming more mainstream was more like 10 years away than 12 months away. Once you understand that, you either have to raise $100 million to finance a company with no business model, or you take the pragmatic approach. So we started charging for the tools and the content, which a lot of people are actually willing and ready to pay for.

"We have a more obvious path through AR," Sketchfab CEO Alban Denoyel said.Photo: Sketchfab

How's your business these days, and who are your key customers?

Business is going great, and we're hiring like never before. We just became profitable in September. We have two businesses. On the content side, a marketplace for the 3D world: It's a long tail of companies, prosumers and creators buying 3D assets for video games or movies or ads.

And then we have the technology business, where we license the player and the platform. Creators upgrade to our paid plans for private sharing, larger file sizes and things like that. People are using this as part of their work: for example, architects or designers that need to share 3D assets with clients.

We just started focusing more on internal sharing, content asset management and collaboration, product development and things like that. At any given day, I might be talking to MoMa or Balenciaga or Porsche or a hospital or Harvard.

Apple just released the new iPad Pro with built-in Lidar sensor, which simplifies 3D scanning. How significant has that been for Sketchfab?

It's very recent, the iPhone has been out for a month. I think today it's about 100 uploads a day. That's about 5% [of total daily uploads] within a month, which is pretty spectacular. With other tools, it's taken much longer. So this is really moving our potential user base from 3D professionals to anyone with an iPhone. And it's already part of some Android devices.

However, content capture is much more compelling when there are more and better ways to consume that content. This is the virtuous circle you need to significantly accelerate [adoption].

People are always asking: Why would you 3D-scan something? Do you want to 3D-print it? No, this thing exists in 3D in the real world. If I can capture it in 3D, there's no reason why I shouldn't. I see this really happening in the same terms as Instagram. My food will look great in 3D, my family portraits, my shoes, the things I care about.

The challenge on the consumption side is: I don't think 3D is meant to be browsed in a scrollable way like Instagram. I think a lot of the consumption is going to happen outside of Sketchfab or outside of any given app. Closer to the way Giphy operates, where it's being plugged everywhere as a search bar, and you'll be able to bring a virtual version of anything into Messenger, Slack and more.

How big is AR and VR for Sketchfab?

Today, we're not depending on AR/VR at all. Maybe 10% of our product resources are dedicated to it. We do have some like VR integrations, like in Hubs by Mozilla, which is this social VR world where you can bring in anything from Sketchfab.

But actually, we have a more obvious path through AR. There is already mass market AR consumption happening on Instagram and Snap. Yes, it's gimmicky, and yes, it's just cool AR filters. But it is AR, and it is getting millions of views every day. We're already part of that, we are a library provider for [Facebook's] Spark AR. And we are an AR publishing solution; a lot of people use our technology to embed AR content. That's fairly recent, but starting to get more traction.

Our goal is to be pre-installed as an API on the AR headsets of the future, and be able to have playlists of virtual things. We'd almost have a Spotify-like business model, where you have a playlist in your virtual living room, with a little tree and a little dog, and they get updated every Monday, or something like that. Viewing our content is going to be more mainstream.

What are your plans for a more near-term future, maybe the next six to nine months?

A lot of brands are starting to understand the value of 3D as they think about digitizing their processes. Especially with COVID, [as they are] rethinking the product development. How do we do physical samples? How do we do B2B trade shows? 3D lets you do all of this, at a fraction of the cost, and with more capabilities than having physical samples.

In the short term, we are going to invest in our solutions for businesses for collaboration, publishing, commerce and so on. And we're going to keep investing in our publishing solutions for content creators and the long tail of new users coming from 3D capture.

Will 3D sensors in iPhones, and the growing creator community this could enable, ultimately get you closer to your original "YouTube for 3D" vision again?

Yeah, I think so. It's one of the reasons why we always kept the free tier. When 3D content creation goes mainstream, and the ecosystem is ready for a YouTube moment, we want to be the YouTube for 3D files. And since we already have a stable business, it's essentially subsidizing the long tail of free users.

Climate

The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Enterprise

The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Entertainment

'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Workplace

Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins