Anchoring AR Content, with Simply Augmented’s Boaz Ashkenazy

Seeing is believing, but in the age of 3D product views through AR technology, seeing is also conceptualizing. Simply Augmented CEO Boaz Ashkenazy comes on the show to explain how AR-enabled 3D viewing will revolutionize everything from how we shop, to how we work.

Alan: Hey everyone, Alan Smithson here. Today we’re speaking with Boaz Ashkenazy from SimplyAugmented. We’re going to be talking about how 3D is revolutionizing furniture views and products on the web. All that coming up on the XR for Business podcast.

Boaz, welcome to the show, my friend.

Boaz: Hey, thank you very much. It’s good to be here.

Alan: Oh, it’s my absolute pleasure. I love the work you guys are doing. Let’s get right into it. What is it that SimplyAugmented does, and how is it benefiting your customers now?

Boaz: Well, we have a 3D platform that benefits customers both in the sales and marketing teams, and one of our products is called Simply3D. It allows for sales and marketing teams to easily share augmented reality. We found a lot of challenges around sharing augmented reality online and Simply3D.io is a vehicle for helping folks share. And we also create product and room configurators that exist online that allow people to experience environments and products really easily with augmented reality integration.

Alan: So I got a chance to try one of the samples. I got to configure a– it was like a quiet room or almost like a study room for open office furniture. So you go in, you close the door, and make yourself a phone call or whatever, but I got to configure it on the web. I hit a button, and it was in my living room here, this giant pod. And I was like, “Oh wow. This pod is huge in real life.” So it was a great understanding of how big these things are, and I think that’s truly the power of this technology. Maybe you can speak to some of the specific clients that you’ve worked with. What are they seeing, results wise?

Boaz: You know what’s interesting about what you said is a lot of folks have trouble visualizing products at scale, especially with the bigger the product, the harder it is to visualize. I am an architect by training. And I spent years designing spaces, and a lot of times people are surprised about what those designs end up looking like, because it’s hard to understand objects at scale. And the pods that you mentioned, they’re called Nook pods. And they’re large rooms within a room, basically. You can have a quiet room inside an open office, which is pretty typical these days. For two people for four people, for one person. And to see it online and configure it is one thing, but to see it in the environment and walk into is another.

One of the things that we recognized was there was two things that people really wanted to do. They wanted to quickly customize any of their products — We’re used to doing it with cars and vehicles, customize your products with colors, with options — but then immediately be able to drop that in your environment and walk around it, look underneath it, walk inside it. And that’s really what our configurator does.

One of the challenges that a lot of folks face in the XR space is how do you spin up augmented reality with so many possible variations? That’s the hard part about building these configurators. There’s so many options, that you would never be able to create the augmented reality content beforehand. You wouldn’t be able to predict it. And so what we’ve done is we’ve allowed for on-demand, real time augmented reality, depending on the choices that you make.

Alan: So once I’ve configured it — and I don’t know, I didn’t actually think about this until now — but once I’ve configured — let’s say — the Nook and I drop it into my space, can I continue to configure it from that space?

Boaz: Yeah. Right now the configuration happens on the web. It doesn’t happen in augmented reality, but it’s something that we’re working on. A lot of people, they want to be able to do two things. They want to be able to configure in augmented reality on the web, not just in an app, and then also put multiple items in a space and have them stay in that environment. And so spacial anchors of different varieties are also something that we’re working on. I think that’s going to be a trend that we see, is people using spacial anchors to establish products in the environment that don’t go away — unless you want them to — and then be able to configure them in real time.

Alan: Give me an example of why somebody would want to leave something in fixed space.

Boaz: I mean, there’s so many use cases, but one example would be being able to drop a– let’s keep talking about the Nook. So let’s say that you’d want to drop the Nook in an office space in a certain location, but you’d want to tag it so it stays in place. And then when somebody else comes into that environment, they can see it in the orientation that you’ve placed it in, and then check it out as well. So that’s one option. The other option that we’re seeing a lot of is in virtual meetings. So with spacial anchors, if you can — as a team leader and as a presenter — drop an object onto the table in front of you, everybody else can pick up their phones and look at that object as well. And you’ve established it as a point in space. And so as we see virtual meetings really taking over, I think that augmented reality is going to be a part of being able to visualize what otherwise would be hard to show if you weren’t present.

Alan: With the coronavirus and all these events being canceled, there’s an opportunity for this industry to really springboard itself. We’ve identified, I think, 60 different VR and AR collaboration platforms so far. And so I think the ability to bring an object in and collaborate with it from anywhere is really going to be something special. What are you mainly targeting now, from the device standpoint? Like obviously virtual reality goggles — for example — are great, but there’s not that many– the scale isn’t there yet. With augmented reality, you’ve got maybe phone-based versus HoloLens or something like that. What type of devices are you targeting now, or what is the major consumption of this technology?

Boaz: For a long time, I worked with Oculus, Vive, HoloLens, and other headsets. And recently I’m seeing a lot of people switching over to mobile devices, there’s a lot of headsets that I see in offices that are going unused. I’m still very interested in those use cases, especially in hands-free situations. But most of my clients want to experience augmented reality with their phone or tablet. And then the other thing, too, is when we first started SimplyAugmented, we built apps for the app store and we build Android apps, and built a platform solely based on those apps. And some of the feedback that we were getting was just around friction of having too many apps in their phone, about wanting to get to the augmented reality faster.

And so in the last six months, we built Simply3D.io, which is a web-based platform where you have text messaging and QR codes and you can share augmented reality directly with your customers and they can just happen in their own browser. And that’s a trend that we’re seeing. 8th Wall’s doing some interesting things with web-based augmented reality. And I just see that exploding. And I think that’s going to be a huge trend.

Alan: I tend to disagree. I think the internet is a passing fad. I don’t think it’s going to stick around.

[ba-dum-tsssh]

[laughs] To be honest, the way the Web is going, with 5G and distributed computing and being able to render things on the cloud– not only render on the cloud, but with edge computing, you should be able to take some of the rendering power off of the device and put it in the edge, and create those multi-user experiences with photorealistic precision, and allow people from around the world to work together on photorealistic 3D assets, all running from your phone. Because if you can take even 50% of the rendering power off the device, then you’re able to push way more pixels. Or voxels, I guess; three dimensional pixels.

Boaz: Yeah, absolutely. I also do 3D consulting and I work with a lot of design construction and developers in the real estate space, and we’ve developed some 3D configurators that are room configurators, spacial configurators, where you can go into environments. And we’re using WebGL. We’re doing a lot of technical work to keep these file sizes really small, so that on the web you can get inside spaces and walk around. And I know you know this well, but with 5G — and with other new technology — to be able to do all of this on a website and really explore environments in that way — even though that’s a lot of content — is going to be really, really powerful. And I think the stuff that we’re seeing now with coronavirus, I have a lot of clients that are in the commercial real estate space that do a lot of tours, physical tours, face to face. And being able to do a tour in a photorealistic environment with your clients and not having to be there in person, I think is going to be huge.

Alan: I think so too. You mentioned something, and I think this is something that I would like to kind of stick a pin in and explore with you a little bit more. One of the things that comes up a lot is that dealing with 3D assets is a pain in the asset. How do you manage these 3D files? How do you manage the back and forth with your customers to say, here’s the 3D file, here’s the different colors, and have them approve them and back and forth with that, because I know just simply with photographs and logos and stuff with when you’re doing traditional marketing, the back and forth content management systems are there, but none of the current content management systems support 3D yet.

Boaz: Yeah, it’s a really good point. What we found is that the configurators that we build are a really good way to communicate a lot of different options. It’s one thing if you are building one model with one color and several materials, and you can share that with your client via Simply3D.io or other mechanisms to share. But being able to mark up those 3D objects is really difficult. People currently do is they’ll take a snapshot on their machine, and then they’ll go through traditional methods of marking that up and red-marking that file.

Alan: And there’s no tracking in that way.

Boaz: No, not at all. And so one of the things that we’re going to be building into Simply3D.io is a collaboration tool that allows you to spin models around and tag it with notes that have replies and have a string of comments, that are typical to the kinds of things we see in Slack and other messaging, because I think that’s the way; to be able to have it live on top of that 3D model is the best way to be able to track those changes.

And the same thing is true for environments as well. Being able to walk through an architectural environment, tag it, and have those comments stay so that when someone comes in later, they can see them and they can respond to them. It’s the same thing, whether it’s a product or a space.

Alan: Absolutely. And one of the things that we’re just looking at now is how can we then leverage the power of the blockchain to lock the comments and the permissions to the 3D object. Because a 3D object is not a 2D object. If I go into TurboSquid and buy a car, that’s fine. I can download the car, I own the 3D object. But if it’s a brand who wants to protect their 3D object and also protect the layers of communication back and forth, maybe blockchain is something that can manage that.

Boaz: That’s really interesting. I think that being able to establish who made that model and then who owns the rights to that model, and then track changes across that model to a final change and establish that authenticity is huge. I think that’s really interesting.

Alan: It’s funny, a friend of mine, I reached out to him yesterday. I said, “Hey man, how can we use our– what we’re doing through the blockchain and really secure these assets, and then lock in the changes?” Exactly what you said. If somebody needs to go in and make a change, it locks in who they are, where they were, how long they interacted with the model, what their role is and gives them a dashboard based on their hierarchy in the company. I think it’s an interesting business model.

One of the things that keeps coming up, again, being in the 3D space is file sizes. And you mentioned that you’ve done a lot of work in kind of making the file sizes smaller to fit into these web-based experiences. What are you finding is the maximum kind of file size that you are comfortable with, number of polygons or that sort of– what is the kind of maximum that you recommend to your customers for a seamless web experience?

Boaz: For the best web experience, we try to keep the file sizes between two megabytes and five megabytes. And one of the things that we’ve been working on — and I’ve been part of — is the Khronos Group. There’s a working group inside the Khronos Group called the 3D Commerce Group. One of the things we’re doing is establishing some guidelines for the world so that there’s consistency when folks build models, and send them to online retailers and to manufacturers and others. And one of the challenges we face now is to have it perform for customers on their mobile devices and not lag and not take too long. Really need to get into those numbers, two megabytes to five megabytes. And to do that requires you to keep your models pretty efficient, both in terms of polygons and draw calls, but also in terms of materials. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we face.

Some of the groups that sit in this working group, folks like Amazon and Wayfair and Shopify, and they’re receiving a lot of models from the 3D community every single day. And it’s frustrating, because there’s a lot of inconsistency in terms of materiality, how those models are built. One of the things we try to do is use PBR materials for all these models — Physically Based Rendering — to really make things look real, make colors accurate, make the lighting accurate. And so that’s the real challenge. It’s a dance between trying to make something look really real and keep it really small so it’s performs.

Alan: Yeah. Interesting. I was researching some file optimization this morning and I found two: one’s called Simplygon, which is a polygon reduction tool from– I believe Microsoft bought them.

Boaz: Yep, that’s right.

Alan: The other one is InstaLOD. It’s mainly used for games, but it looks like something that will be really useful. It’s instalod.com.

Boaz: Interesting. I haven’t heard of that before.

Alan: Again, there’s– one, there’s no standardization. So Apple — I believe — left the Khronos Group, leaving kind of the worldwide standards. Almost ready to be like, “We’re going to have these standards.” And then Apple’s like “Ehhh, no. We’ll create USDZ.” I think there’s going to be, over the next kind of 12 months, we’re going to have this kind of up in the air, what is the format? Because really what it needs to be is a format that’d be like a JPEG. I send you a JPEG, you get a JPEG, you open it up, and it works. Right now, if you send me an OBJ, you’ve got to send me the OBJ, you’ve got to send me the texture files, the bitmaps, the normals, the specular files, and then I spend a half an hour just trying to reassemble the file that you sent to me. This is dumb.

Boaz: Absolutely.

Alan: And there’s no animations built in.

Boaz: Absolutely.

Alan: The animations, maybe some are, some aren’t, glTFs support it, FBXs don’t.

Boaz: Yeah. I mean, Khronos is really pushing on glTF and GLB to be that standard, but in general, I think that’s the big problem and challenge we face. Right now, we’re just at the brink of having 3D explode in the eCommerce space, and when it does, the scale by which all these models are going to be created, we really need consistency in a standard.

Alan: I couldn’t agree more. I hope to join the Khronos Group very shortly and help. We’ve created our own model format, which will release soon. And you and I have spoke offline about it. But I also– I read a research paper from Microsoft and they’re working on using 2D images to create 3D models. So they’re using adversarial networks or AI to fill in the blanks of, here’s a 2D image, what is the geometry of it in 3D? And it’s working. I mean, it’s very, very basic now, but give it another — let’s say — year, maybe two years, and we should be able to take Amazon’s catalog of products and take the five photographs from the products and estimate what the 3D object looks like.

Boaz: Yeah, it’s incredible. We’ve been talking to a couple of companies that are exploring that as well, and it’s real and it’s going to be something that really revolutionizes the content creation space, because no longer is everything going to have to be created from scratch.

Alan: It’s getting really, really exciting. What are the first steps of a brand [that] wants to get into this and get in touch with you? It’s simplyaugmented.com

Boaz: Yep.

Alan: What are the first steps that you do with a customer though?

Boaz: I think the big thing is understanding what we’re starting with. Folks are unclear about the assets that they have and if they’re going to work for 3D. So you have some customers that are starting with nothing but photographs and specifications. So we just launched a project for one of the larger outdoor furniture companies in the United States called O.W. Lee. And they started– they had a really good catalog of photographs, good shop drawings, good specifications, but they weren’t sitting on a lot of 3D content. Whereas we have other customers at Herman Miller –the office furniture company — and their dealers are clients of ours, but they have a vault of 3D models that are really good. We start from those 3D models. There needs to be some cleanup and some adjustment to materials, but they’re starting from a very different place.

So it’s just kind of understanding and doing an audit of what the catalog looks like right now. That’s the first step. And then oftentimes aligning the budgets with the catalog size. Most people want to build out everything all at once, but oftentimes it’s good to start slow and build out a line or a collections.

Alan: So what do you suggest then? Do you typically say, “Okay, let’s just take one product and show you how it’s going to work?” What is the cost for a customer to have a product? Let’s say for example, we use the Nook as an example. You 3D model the Nook, and you change all the colors, the bench could be green, blue, red, five different configurations, maybe the shape of it as five different configurations. Is it based on the number of configurations? Is it based on just a time, like we think this is going to be 40 hours or whatever?

Boaz: I mean, usually it’s based on catalog size and the number of materials as well. And everyone’s a little bit different. So some furniture companies will have 20 collections, but they’ll have 250 materials and they’re going to want to swap those materials. And so in the case of O.W. Lee, we used Sunbrella materials for that product, and there was a lot of materials that needed to get swapped out.

In the case of Nook, they had, I think, 10 different laminates for one section, some different colors for the other, but it was a much more limited material of variety. The thing that was different about Nook was, unlike O.W. Lee or some furniture companies, where the color of the base is changing — or the color of the fabric — the Nook had lots of different options and lots of different pieces and parts, that were turning on and off. So there was a lot more different combinations.

So you kind of look at the entire size of the catalog and then you look at the number of combinations. The costs can be as little as $10,000 up to a $100,000, so it’s a wide range and it’s really dependent on how deep you want to go in terms of the number of products, combinations,

Alan: What is the turnaround time? This is another thing that customers keep asking, is how long is it going to take for me to have my catalog? Is it an hour per model? Is it a day? And how do people budget time-wise for that?

Boaz: Yeah, I would say that for most projects, we’re falling in the 30 to 60 day turnaround time, for a smaller configurator. If it gets really complicated, it can be up to six months to really go through an entire processes and do an entire catalog. But if you start small and you want to do a collection and test it out on your website, usually within 30 days you can get a configurator built.

Alan: Well, Boaz, thank you so much for bringing your knowledge. Is there anything else you want to tell people about SimplyAugmented or Simply3D?

Boaz: Yeah, I would love to have people log in to Simply3D.io. You can set up a free account and play around with objects, and see what it’s like to share and to do augmented reality in your own environment. And we would love the feedback and get to hear from people about their use cases and their workflows. Because fundamentally, that’s the thing that’s most interesting to us is can this technology solve problems? And so the more problems that we can hear about and understand the better for us.

Alan: I’m logging in right now.

Boaz: Well, thanks a lot. It’s just wonderful talking to you today, Alan.

Alan: Yeah, man. I have one more question for you.

Boaz: Sure.

Alan: What problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Boaz: Oh, that’s a good question. You know, I think in the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about remote meetings and about ways that designers can share complicated information to a group of people, that aren’t in the room with them. And as an architect, we thought a lot about how to explain very, very complicated, three-dimensional experiences to people and help them visualize that. And I think now more than ever, being able to do that quickly and get decisions made quickly are really key. And so I’d like to see a growth in the virtual meeting space, and I’d like to see augmented reality integrated into that right alongside.

Alan: Well, thank you so much, Boaz, for sharing this. If people want more information, you can visit simplyaugmented.com or you can sign up for simply3d.io. I’m signed in there. I’m looking for stuff. I’m going to load my models in and get viewing online. This is awesome.

Thank you again, everyone, for listening to the XR for Business podcast. Make sure you hit the subscribe button so that you don’t miss any episodes. Thanks so much, Boaz.

Boaz: Hey, thanks, Alan. I appreciate it.

Alan: Cheers.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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