360 or 3D – Which is Best for Displaying Products Online?

Cheetah 3dImagery is important for an online store. But if you want to go that extra step, are 360 views or 3D models better?

Disclaimer: These views are my own and not that of my employer. Also I picked somewhat random example implementations of these technologies – this article is not meant as an endorsement of any particular vendor. 


360 views allow you to spin an object around, looking from the side at a consistent height. This is normally achieved by taking a number of photos of the product from different angles. The more photos take, the smoother the scroll.

So how is a 360 view different to shooting a short video? The primary difference is the user has control over which view angle to look at a product. The user can ‘spin’ the object and look at a specific angle of their choosing. This is a more like an experience in a physical store where you can pick a product up and have a good look at it from different angles. With a video the user watching the video is a passive observer.

There are other benefits of a 360 view. Some tools allow you to put annotations on the image so as the image rotates the annotation rotates with the image. This allows you to point out some characteristic of the product that the user can choose to click on for more details. A magnify view to look at details may be another feature supported.

Doing a search for Magento and 360 viewers brings up multiple options. One free 360 viewer extension was WebRotate 360 Product Viewer with prettyPhoto Lightbox Image Gallery. A demo is available on their site.

But how to you collect the photos?

The easiest way is to get a turntable. There are multiple turntables available that make taking photographs of your product easier – you set up a camera and take a series photos, moving the turntable by a fixed small amount each time. The turntable ensures that the product stays in the center of the image. You can of course get turntables and cameras that can be controlled by computer. You just put your product on the turntable and let the system take the photos for you. Important if you have a large number of products to photograph.

3D Spherical Photography

360 are nice, but there is one step further. Rather than rotating on a horizontal plane only, why not go full 3D and allow viewing from any angle?

Just like you can get a spinning turn-table for 360 views, you can also get rigs for taking 3D photos. For example http://www.emedigital.co.uk/imageCapture/photostudio_multi.htm shows one product that takes lots of photos from different angles. If you click and drag the image, you can rotate it horizontally like a 360 view, but you can also look at the bottom or top by doing a vertical rotate. This approach involves taking a lot of photos of the product, many more than simply 360 rotations.

If you look at the demo on the above site, you may notice the image does not provide a very smooth control – rotating is quite jerky. This is a function of the number of photos taken.

3D Models

There is a different approach for a 3D feel to viewing an object which is to build a model of the object. For some products, there may be models developed already. For example, Maybe 3D has a range of 3D models for a range of electronic devices. Their home page has a sample demo. You will notice it much smoother to scroll. That is because it renders the image at any angle from the 3D model – it does not require a photo from that exact angle to exist.

Maybe 3D provides (for sale) a number of models of electronic devices. But what if they don’t have a model for the product you want to sell? Well, there is another way. Technology has been progressing to the point where you can take photos of an item from different angles and it automatically generates a 3D model for you.  I suspect the technology is being pushed along by the arrival of 3D printers. If I can photograph an existing object and create a model, then it can be created using the 3D printer.

So how much does this high tech technology cost? Well, there are free iPhone apps that can do this! They are slow, and might not be suitable for professional grade photography, but it is pretty darn cool technology.

The one I tried is 123D Catch from Autocad. I loaded the app onto my iPhone and started clicking away. The app gave visual cues for whether I had taken all the angled shots. It is important to get views from up high and down low.  If an area of the product does not have multiple photos (3 I think reading was the minimum) then it will be left out of the model. So I clicked away taking pictures of one of the kid’s stuffies.

Taking the photos was pretty quick and easy. The rest of the experience was not. It took around 15 minutes to process the photos, which get uploaded to the cloud. (Some blogs said it can take hours at times). I discovered it included a lot of the background room too (e.g. the walls of the room). So I had to to trim that off.

The iPhone app does not support the trim functionality, so I went to the web site. There is an online editing tool on the web site! Nice! Except it took up to 10 minutes to load a file (with lots of dire warnings about the module being unsafe, should it be killed etc). The result was a very sluggish UI that allowed me to delete parts of the diagram. By sluggish, I mean a few minutes to lasso one area to delete. At the end, clicking saved crashed the browser. Trying again, same problem. Advice: save yourself the pain – only edit small files using the web site. Anything large just did not work for me.

Next I tried the desktop version of the software. I had a lot more luck with that, and managed to prune out the background images fairly quickly.  My 3D Cheetah model can be viewed online one the 123D Catch web site. I exported a video of the Cheetah as well. The 3D model for the Cheetah was formed 100% from free software (well, there might be restrictions with what you can do with the models).


The 3D modelling is rather cool. The fact that there is free software that converts camera photos into a 3D model (with textures) is pretty darn amazing. Ignoring the geeky side of me, let’s look at whether the result results in a better experience for customers.

  • Rotating in 3D is more complicated for users than only rotating on the horizontal plane. This can be a negative.
  • Tools like 123D Catch model what they see. Cheetah on a table does not capture the solid bottom of the model. If you turn it upside down, you will discover a large void on the inside. (Better photography rigs would solve this problem.)
  • If you don’t get full coverage of photos, you get empty gaps in the image.
  • A lot more disk space is required.
  • You may need to download and install an additional extension.
  • I suspect the time taken to photograph the product combined with the disk space required to host it will make this a non-starter for many websites for sometime yet.

Bottom line, 3D modeling of objects is cool and surprisingly easy. But I don’t think the industry is at a stage of standardization. I like the 360 rotates – they are simple to use, simple to understand, and pretty cool. The number of photos to take and the cost of hosting many photos per product where only one existed before is a negative – if you have a lot of products, it is worth thinking about the cost of collecting the photography before trying a 3D model.  3D models could take less space than taking photos at lots of different angles.

The 3D feels a bit geeky still, but I am sure progress will be continued to be made in that arena.


  1. I have to agree, 360 product photography is the way to go. Another direction that can always be looked at is having the image creation outsourced. Remember, you are always better at working on more sales, let the guys that are good at what they do, create the 360’s for you.

  2. I guess it has to be mentioned is that such heavyweight objects are currently not suitable for mobile devices.

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