Building a 'JPEG for 3D': The New Standard
Dr. Max Limper
November 2, 2020

Building a 'JPEG for 3D': The New Standard

Back in 1992, the Joint Photographic Experts Group established a photographic standard, which gave its name to a famous type of image file: the JPEG. Today, the JPEG is the most popular digital picture format in the world and billions of these files are published or transmitted online every day. 
Now another committee is working to establish a standard which could have a similarly transformative effect. The Khronos Group organization has been working on the standardization of a format called the glTF (Graphics Library Transmission Format), which is radically altering the way 3D content is presented online.

In 2016, John Carmack, the programmer behind legendary games including Doom and Quake, said “The world has long needed an efficient, usable standard for 3D scenes that sits at the level of common image, audio, video, and text formats,” which is “at home on the Internet, capable of being directly created and consumed by many different applications.”

I believe the glTF is the filetype which will realize this visionary ambition – and I’m not alone. 

The JPEG was revolutionary because it allowed images to be compressed and then easily shared across all platforms – and now the glTF is promising to do the same for 3D content. In the coming years, 3D models will play an increasingly important role in e-commerce and other digital industries. Most, if not all, online retailers will visualize their products in 3D, allowing shoppers to inspect them from every angle and interact with items in a way which was once only possible inside physical stores. 

In the past, retailers who wanted to present 3D content would have had to jump through many hoops which interfered with the process and prevented it from becoming scalable. Let’s consider, for example, a shoe store. If it wanted to display an interactive model of a shoe in 3D, the retailer would probably have had to commission a web app designed for that specific task. This created a "vendor lock-in effect" that ties companies to a specific proprietary format. But with glTF, their content can be displayed by any 3D viewer, including powerful open-source ones like BabylonJS, ThreeJS or <model-viewer>. The glTF allows 3D workflows to become vendor-neutral and hence more robust, affordable and powerful, since all software out there suddenly can deal with the same format.

Today, if a company produced scans of its products and formatted them as glTFs, the problems with proprietary solutions would be removed. The 3D assets can be resized in order to ensure they can be viewed on mobile devices or any other platform. They can also be reused on a variety of browsers or embedded easily on websites. Companies including Microsoft and Facebook already offer the ability to view glTF files natively. Once retailers adopt this standard, they will be able to easily create, display, and share high-quality 3D models. This shift into 3D is going to happen very soon - and the world of e-commerce will never be the same again. 

Of course, the glTF is not the only standard out there. The Khronos Group is leading the development of this standard, with its 3D commerce group, working to “align the industry for streamlined 3D content creation, management, and display in online retail.” This group includes retailers such as IKEA and Wayfair that are currently working to establish the glTF standard, but will soon be competing again as rivals. 

Apple has a competing format called USDZ, which is associated with ARKit, an augmented reality development platform. This format has its roots in the animation industry, which is connected to Apple due to Steve Jobs’ involvement with Pixar, the studio behind Toy Story and The Incredibles. 

There’s no doubt the USDZ format is very powerful. It’s particularly useful for creating large, detailed environments, for instance. But glTF is particularly useful for e-commerce and other applications. It’s maintained by a consortium, which means its development is more open and transparent, so therefore can quickly respond to change. It’s also supported across platforms, so you can simply drop a glTF file into Powerpoint or embed it in a social media post. Importantly, the glTF standard is designed to enable the presentation of 3D content online. 

Its ease of use and wide compatibility will allow the creation of 3D content on a massive scale. Which is exactly what’s required to usher in a new era of e-commerce. To get a sense of the work involved, just imagine what a major retailer would have to do to digitize its catalog of products in 3D. It will have to produce 3D scans of tens of thousands of products each year – if not more. If it simply falls back on traditional photography whilst its competitors move into the 3D space, the retailer will be left behind. So it will first have to produce 3D scans – which is becoming ever easier with the arrival of scanners designed with e-commerce in mind. The retailer will then have to load the 3D files into its content management system to display them online. If they are using glTF files, this process is considerably easier and more straight-forward. Other solutions would be slow, cumbersome and labor-intensive. 

The potential of glTF is becoming very clear across a number of industries. I’ve personally spoken to a number of retailers who are very excited about the glTF format and its potential to push forward the evolution of e-commerce. I believe this format will soon become as familiar as the JPEG, powering a 3D revolution that will bring historic change to many industries. 

Dr. Max Limper is CEO and co-founder of DGG, maker of RapidCompact, and co-chair of the Asset Creation TSG within the Khronos 3D Commerce Working Group.