Sketchfab, the "YouTube of 3D content", goes Pro

Aug 21, 2012
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Ever wondered how 3D artists showcase their work on the web? Screenshots and videos. Not cool… If it’s in 3D, I want to interact with the stuff! Sketchfab is changing things and it is becoming a major platform for publishing and consuming this new kind of media on the internet. See — and play with — their viewer embedded below:

You’ll notice that, if you have a modern browser, this works out of the box (ok, there’s a trick for IE, you’ll just need a couple of clicks to install Google Chrome Frame). Sketchfab makes it easy to share 3D models on the web by embedding their viewer on any web page, which brings good traffic to the platform. It’s just like YouTube, but for 3D files. Models of futuristic cars are always popular, such as the BMW i8 that was retweeted to the @bmwi 140,000 followers.

The business

There’s more to Sketchfab than geeky entertainment, as I suggested when opening the article: it is actually useful for 3D professionals to showcase their work. You can think of Sketchfab as the equivalent of Vimeo or Soundcloud in the 3D industry. But actually, a better analogy may be with SlideShare, because of the fact that the media is relatively rare on the internet, it is mostly produced by professionals, but it can be consumed by all. Since their launch in march, Sketchfab have been regularly contacted for a pro version, by various user types: 3D artists, designers, scanners, and for education.

Last week’s release brings the features they requested: more space, an unbranded viewer and password protection. In the future, pro accounts will also have versioning and the ability to annotate models within the viewer. Pricing was determined after polling early adopters and analysing average prices for similar services in other industries: it is set at 9€ per month or 89€ per year. The team estimates the market to 20 million active 3D software users. A free version of the service still exists.

No knowledge of 3D? No problem.

With 3D scanning becoming available to the masses, even you and me will be creating 3D content soon. Manctl, another French startup, is building a 3D scanner in the form of a piece of software called Skanect that works in conjunction with a Kinect:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9URIR-dEWBM

If you head over to their blog, you’ll see that they are big fans of the Sketchfab viewer. Here’s an example of what you can get if you scan yourself…

The technology

Sketchfab just works because it only uses standards that are built in modern browsers (HTML5 and WebGL for real-time 3D in the browser). There are alternatives for viewing 3D content on the web, such as Unity or Flash’s Stage3D, but they all require a plugin instal. The main downside is that WebGL isn’t activated yet on mobile Safari on iOS — but you can hack your iDevice to make it work. Things may change with iOS 6, but in any case the Sketchfab team is working on a fall-back version of their player in order to ensure compatibility with as many devices as possible.

If you are familiar with 3D on the web, you have probably come across WebGL/JavaScript frameworks such as Three.js, a “lightweight 3D library with a very low level of complexity — in other words, for dummies”, whose creator Mr Doob will be at the DotJS conference on 30 November in Paris. Cédric Pinson, the co-founder and CTO of Sketchfab, created an alternative WebGL framework called OSG.JS, on which the Sketchfab viewer is based. Compared to other frameworks, OSG.JS allows lower-level programming (control over WebGL buffers for instance). It is a JavaScript port of OpenSceneGraph, an open source project that Cédric also maintains.

It is worth noting that Sketchfab is the first platform of its kind. Bringing 3D to a wide audience is an ambitious goal where they differentiate themselves from competitors P3D and Verold. It also comes with serious technical challenges: similarly to video, the published content needs to be compressed into different versions so it can adapt to the performance of your machine. Polygons are the building blocks of 3D models, and the more polygons, the higher the performance footprint. The infrastructure must be able to process all the models that are uploaded to the platform as fast as possible, in order to create different versions of them with reduced numbers of polygons. And this is a completely novel problem to deal with.

The team

Sketchfab was founded by Cédric Pinson and Alban Denoyel. They are mentored by Andrew Lacy (co-founder of Tapulous) at Le Camping, where they are incubated (and which is also home to their 2 interns in web dev and 3D dev/modeling). Cédric has 12 years of experience working as a 3D developer, he was one of the first to jump on the WebGL bandwagon and he was commissioned by Mozilla to make a demo of WebGL for the launch of Firefox 4 in March 2011. Alban is an Essec Business School graduate who worked for 3 years with the former director of Paris Match on the launch a new media dedicated to photojournalism, and then launched a low cost web agency. He is a hobbyist sculptor who fell in love with 3D as, he felt, the “symbiosis of tech and sculpture”.

How about using Sketchfab for your company?

You could differentiate from competitors by showing your products in 3D on your website! Here are two examples:

When will we see companies outside of France use the same technology? :p