3-D Web Site Helps Make Clothing Stand Out

BOSTON (05/23/2000) - Faced with flat sales, a U.K. shirtmaker is using 3-D images on its Web site to expand into new markets.

Charles Tyrwhitt in London is using 3-D images as it moves into the U.S. and Europe. With improvements in technologies such as streaming media software and data caching, even users with 56K-bps modems can download the images without an agonizing wait.

On the new site, when a visitor selects a shirt with desired details, such as collar style, fabric and color, a 2-D image appears.

If he clicks on the 3-D button, the shirt is shown in 3-D in a separate window.

The user can manipulate the image with his mouse, turning the shirt to see it from any angle. A combination of keystrokes and mouse clicks can bring the shirt close enough to see its texture.

James Stewart, Tyrwhitt's vice president of sales, was charged with developing the firm's first Web site, which went live in April 1998.

After 10 years of an average 44 percent annual growth, sales plateaued at $20 million in 1997, Stewart said, and he wanted to boost sales by expanding into the U.S.

The original Web site was a good beginning, he said, but "we couldn't update images and text on our site without going through our Web-hosting service, and that made it slow and cumbersome. We weren't operating in e-time."

And because of the slow updates, he said, offers, sale prices and promotions that were available to catalog and store shoppers weren't available to online shoppers.

A friend of Stewart's who worked at Islandia, New York-based Computer Associates International Inc. said CA's object-oriented development environment, Jasmine ii, could help solve the update problem.

That's because all information about a company's products, both textual data and pictures, are objects in the Jasmine ii database, Stewart said. Since changes to an object are automatically reflected wherever that object is used, a change in the price of a shirt, for example, would automatically show up on the Web site.

At the same seminar where he saw Jasmine ii, Stewart also saw 3-D images that were developed by CA subsidiary Viewpoint Digital Inc. in Draper, Utah, and that were streamed using technology from MetaCreations Corp. in Carpinteria, California.

Viewpoint was already using a point digitizing tool to create 3-D mesh skeletons of hard objects, such as digital video disc players. A grid is drawn over an object, and a tool similar to a digitizing pen takes readings at the grid intersections and transmits them to the computer to create a mesh drawing.

Texture is then mapped to the mesh drawing.

An object with hard, unchanging surfaces is easier to collect measurement data on than an object such as a shirt, which changes its shape as it moves or as it's touched by a digitizing tool, said Steve Wallock, ViewPoint's vice president of visualization solutions.

To accurately depict the draping of the shirt, Viewpoint uses a scanner that measures the surface of an object by bouncing light off it and capturing the flowing, irregular shape in a very high-resolution image.

An artist then adds surface features such as color or texture to the image, while also removing unnecessary portions of the underlying grid to reduce the file size.

The image is stored on the Web server as a MetaStream 3-D file and delivered to the site visitor's desktop "using a progressive streaming technology," Wallock said.

If trends reported by Internet research firm eMarketer in New York are an indicator, many business-to-consumer sites must offer stepped-up service and images if they hope to compete effectively.

By 2003, business-to-business e-commerce will swell from 80 percent of online sales to an estimated 87 percent and $1.3 trillion, eMarketer said in a recent report. But business-to-consumer e-commerce revenues will grow at a much slower pace, to an estimated $188 billion globally in 2003, the report said.

"Despite substantial growth in [business-to-consumer] e-commerce, however, buying online remains an activity that only 8 percent of the world claims is a reason they log on to the Internet," eMarketer said.

The visual impact of 3-D images affected more than just shoppers and retailers.

Among those watching a recent demonstration of the technology was Ottar Espedal, a manager at Norwegian offshore oil company Telenor AS. "I didn't come to see this," he said, shaking his head, "but this is impressive; this is the future."

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