360 Photos for E-Commerce

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are hot topics with lots of interesting potential in the commerce space. For example a 3D model of a product is useful in AR (e.g. to experience what furniture will look like in your own house), VR (e.g. in a virtual showroom), and directly on normal web pages (e.g. so you can rotate an object on your screen using your mouse to see it from all angles). In this post however I wanted to briefly focus on another VR related technology – 360 view photos.

360 view photos are hardly new, but they have been getting cheaper to do with better quality. If you have not done so recently, it may be time to think about them again.

How They Work

A 360 view photo (also known as spherical photography) is not a picture of an object from all angles. Instead, it is a photo that looks outwards in all directions from a single view point. It is more like standing in the middle of an open meadow and looking around in all directions.

That means 360 view photos are more useful in a VR context than an AR context. In VR they engulf you in the experience – you see an environment in all directions that you face. You cannot however move around in the scene – the photo is from a fixed view point. That means they are less useful in an AR context where you want assets to fit into your environment.

360 view photos can also be displayed on a flat computer screen by allowing the user to change the direction of view using a mouse. (Google Street View does this for example.) This is what makes them worthwhile – they are useful to all users today, but offer an improved experience for those with the more advanced VR gear. Try scrolling the following picture to look around a scene (its from a hobby animation project I have been working on).

You may have seen some 360 view photos around on the net without a viewer in place, resulting in a distorted picture. For example, the underlying photo for the above experience is as follows:

As you can see, it is just a rectangular photo, but one that has been warped in strange ways. How it works is pretty simple. Imagine you have a ball and you bend the photo to go around the ball. The photo being printed on flat paper will be touching the ball all around at the equator. Next you push the top and bottom edges of the photo inwards towards the north and south poles.

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To view a 360 photo, software does the necessary transformations to use the direction of sight and the original photo to produce the image to display in a web browser. Given the direction of the line of site, the photo is transformed in such a way to show you would it would look like if you looked in that direction. This blog is on wordpress.com where you drop a single line into the blog post to make the image appear.

Applicability to E-Commerce

How can you use 360 view photos on your e-commerce store? Well, there is the obvious benefits if you are selling holiday destinations – customers can get a much richer experience of what it may be like going somewhere than just a flat photo.

But a more common use case is if you have a physical store. Street View will allow someone see the outside of your store, and there are some Street View experiences that allow you to go into a store, but if you take your own 3D photos of your store you can control the experience more and provide a higher quality viewing experience, targeted at exactly what you want people to see.

For example, a local bike store may take photos of the kids bike section, the adult bike sections, and your service area. You can include happy smiling sales people as in a normal photo with complete control over staging etc. This, I believe, is more useful for smaller stores. A local customer knows a department store chain will have a lot of choice – but for a small chain or even a single store, a photo can help customers more quickly understand the breadth and feel of a store and the services it provides.

Even if you don’t have a physical store, a 360 view photo can be used to spice up your blog by showing your warehouse, your products in use, or more.

Conclusion

Wrapping up, if you have physical stores and want to spruce up your website, consider 360 photos. Cameras are getting cheaper and more accessible (there are many options in the $200 to $500 range) or hire a professional photographer. The more immersive experience can help potential customers make that decision to come in and see your physical store.

I am not going to recommend a camera here – there are lots of online reviews, and it depends on the quality you desire. Just remember that the image is going to be transformed, and only a subset of the image is visible at any one point in time. That means resolution matters – if you want a crisp sharp image no matter what the line of sight, get a higher resolution camera. Look at the image above – see how small the characters are on the master image. You need sufficient resolution to zoom in on such areas and have the photo still look high quality on your web site.

Also don’t underestimate the effort to get a good quality photo. Just like lighting matters for studio photography, lighting also matters for 360 view photos. It is however harder because you cannot hide lights “behind the camera”, and moving lights with the camera can result in strange shadow effects in the final photo.

It is also easy to get viewing software for your web site. There are a number of free 360 image viewers around, such as http://www.marzipano.net/. Again, rather than make a recommendation here when I have not personally used most of these viewers, search for “360 viewer” in your favorite search engine and select the one that best suits your needs. If you are on a platform, there is almost certainly a plugin/extension already available.

The bottom line is, if you have not done so before, consider adding life to your website by adding a 360 view photo. It is a much lower effort than other formats as it is just a different JavaScript library for displaying photos, not a completely different underlying technology as may be required for streaming video or hosting complex objects.

Added 5/18, 2018: See also a new Google Tour Creator allowing addition of annotations! Click here for a demo.

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