Sketchfab and the democratization of 3D content

We’re about to see a lot more 3D content in our digital lives.  Various trends, some years in the making, are now intersecting to make this a near-term reality.

On the production side, 3D has of course existed for many years – this has been, in particular, the world of Computer Aided Design (CAD), which originated in part from MIT’s Sketchpad project in the early sixties.  In one form or another, 3D has been used as a professional format across many industries, such as architecture, engineering, construction, and entertainment. Creation of 3D content (even for consumer-facing products like gaming) has remained largely the province of a comparatively small group of specialized professionals.

This is no longer the case. We are witnessing today a significant evolution towards 3D content being democratized and accessible to a much wider audience, both on the production and consumption side.

For 3D production, a generational shift is happening within the creative community.  The new generation of designers grew up playing 3D games, and for many students graduating from design school today, 3D is a top choice.  In addition to its intrinsic value, 3D is also a great way of building realistic effects into 2D work. As a result, the number of young creatives with 3D skills is rapidly increasing.

Another trend on the production side is the democratization of 3D scanning as a widely available feature for professionals and the general public alike. Soon, 3D scanners will be widely distributed in the next generation of mobile phones, laptops, and tablets, enabling just about anyone to capture the world in 3D just as simply as they might today snap a photo.  Google has been working on Project Tango, now available to developers.  Intel has developed its Realsense technology, which is now shipping in various products (see list here), with many more to come.  Apple, characteristically secretive, is clearly up to something in the space with its acquisitions of of PrimeSense and LinX.

On the consumption side, 3D content is also being rapidly democratized. One major evolution has been the success of WebGL – the JavaScript API that allows 3D models to be rendered in any web browser without a plug-in.   WebGL opens the door to a fun and intuitive interaction with 3D models by just about anyone.   Users can manipulate, explore, rotate, and zoom in and out of models, providing a rich, deeply engaging way of experiencing any product on the web and on mobile. This multimedia is no longer static: 3D has allowed this content to be elevated as a destination unto itself.

Beyond the web and mobile, ways of consuming 3D content are broadening.   A lot of content can be 3D printed, and in fact some of the largest repositories of 3D content to date, such as Thingiverse, have been associated with 3D printing.  Another very exciting development for the future of 3D content is the emergence of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). These technologies are essentially all about 3D content, immersing the user into the 3D environment itself. The applications of these technologies are vast, both in professional fields (job training, remote meetings, customer support) and consumer (gaming, movies, chats).

Today I’m thrilled to announce that we are leading a $7M Series A in Sketchfab, the fastest growing community of content for 3D, AR and VR on the web.

Sketchfab is following a tried-and-true “come for the tool, stay for the community” strategy.  At its core, Sketchfab is a publishing tool – basically the best 3D viewer on the web. It’s capable of ingesting 28 file formats and renders 3D content beautifully. Users can navigate content fluidly and are able to view content as it’s meant to be displayed with complex effects, including physically based rendering (PBR).

Leveraging this tool, Sketchfab has become the web’s fastest growing community and content repository around 3D files on the web. As often in early communities, the content skews heavily towards certain verticals like gaming (very much like VR), but Sketchfab is also  used by a variety of brands and cultural institutions, as well as a variety of professionals, hobbyists, amateurs, and curious passerbys.

Quietly over the last couple of years, the company has managed to superbly position itself at the intersection of production and consumption trends of the 3D ecosystem, partnering with just about every key company, large or small.  On the production side,  it is now integrated in (or with) the vast majority of 3D content creation tools (including native integration in Adobe Photoshop, for example). On the consumption side, Sketchfab is natively integrated in Facebook (only one of the 10 players to be natively integrated, across all categories, and the only 3D option), and has been used in a variety of platforms (Kickstarter, Reddit, etc) and publications.

Sketchfab has also caught the AR and VR wave early.  In April, the company announced that it was one of the 12 launch partners for Microsoft HoloLens, by far the youngest company to be included in the group.

Each time there’s been a new format on the web (whether video, sound, slides), there’s been a platform and community for it (YouTube, Soundcloud, Slideshare).  Sketchfab is well on its way to being “the place to be for 3D, AR and VR content on the web”.  We’re excited for the ride!

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