The Secret to Creating Vivid, Low-Cost 3D Product Images at 1/10th the Cost of Traditional Photography

By Mason Sheffield, Director, Lowe’s Innovation Labs

Part Two: Blog Series on the Impact of 3D Imaging in Retail

3D models capture the luster, texture, color and every angle of a product with vivid clarity. In my last blog, I made a case for why a 3D model is worth a million words and can power transformative, new shopping experiences. The benefits of 3D imaging in retail sounds excellent, right? Most retailers agree until they start exploring the costs.

Traditionally, 3D models are created by talented but relatively expensive artists. It may take a week or more for an artist to create one or two. For retailers like Lowe’s that have tens of thousands of products and an ever-growing catalog, solely using 3D artists wasn’t a scalable, cost-effective model.  

To transform Lowe’s product catalog into 3D, we needed to think out of the box. Several years ago, we began looking into ways in which we could create a high-throughput, high-quality, low-cost 3D imaging studio. We hired the best and brightest from the movie, gaming, and entertainment industries--pioneers of the 3D graphics industry. By leveraging techniques and best practices from entertainment, our studio has perfected the ability to create the highest quality 3D product images at 1/10th of the cost of traditional 2D photography.  What’s our secret? It all comes down to 3D scanning.

3D Scanning vs. Manual 3D Models

In retail, it is all about the ability to scale. We found that manual 3D model creation negatively impacted the quality and consistency of images when working at volume since 3D artists have different strengths, modeling techniques, and styles. To solve for scale and meet the demands of a retail environment, we decided to exploit advanced 3D scanning technology.

3D scans leverage photogrammetry software to create high-quality images faster. We developed a fully-automated, custom 3D scanner hardware that enables us to quickly capture the exact color and texture from every angle of an item with millimeter-accurate scale. Using our patented 3D imaging processes, we rapidly bring together 100s of shots from this scanner and create a true-to-form model of the item. The initial render isn’t always perfect, so we also use 3D artists to do post-scanning processing to perfect the image, combine scan elements, and ensure consistency and quality.

Lowe’s products catalog includes items as big as a refrigerator and as small as a single screw. Our custom scanning rig can capture most products. However, to make 3D models of all items, we use many different approaches. We use a structured light scanner to capture small objects with an extraordinary amount of detail. Our team also uses laser scanners to capture large products like an entire patio furniture set.

With our custom scanning approach and technologies, we can capture hundreds of products weekly, and our team of 3D artists can perfect images in a matter of hours versus weeks dramatically improving scale and saving on high-cost 3D production labor costs.

 

3D Model: Bond Canyon Ridge Liquid Propane Fire Column

Overcoming Scanning Challenges

Creating a 3D render of an item isn’t like taking a picture. Our software combines hundreds of photos into a single model. But we found that different surfaces and textures would not always capture reliably as you can see in the image below.

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Common 3D scanning challenges

Traditionally, a powder may be used to coat products ahead of the scanning process. We found limitations with this approach as it required a second scan and did not work on light colored items. To improve our throughput and accurately capture items, Lowe’s Innovation Labs’ researchers developed a patented-approach for using UV fluorescing solution. This approach allows us to coat the item, like using invisible ink, and scan products with much greater detail and resolution than previous techniques. Using UV fluorescing solution, we were able to dramatically improve scans and reduce the amount of time needed for post-processing. An example of how it works can be seen in the image below. On the left, is a scan of a leather ottoman using UV fluorescing solution and the right is the same ottoman using powder. Even in this initial gray-scale scans, the quality difference is drastic. The scans below are shown as grayscale to emphasize the drastic improvement in surface quality.

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Initial scan example of a leather ottoman using Lowe’s Innovation Labs’ patented approach using UV fluorescing solution versus powder in 3D scans

To-date our team has created a 3D library with thousands of products and are adding more each month. You can see a few examples of our work below or check out a library of our work on Sketchfab. In 2019, we’re looking to create an array of exciting new shopping experiences using these 3D models.

 

3D Model: Coaster Brownswood Transitional Sofa

 

3D Model: Piedmont Sculptural Vase

3D Model: KitchenAid 22.1-cu ft 3-Door French Door Refrigerator