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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.
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.