June 12, 2024

Stefan Barthold on the Impact of CG & 3D Production in Marketing

Author: Sainna Christian

As the digital world evolves, the convergence of CG (Computer Graphics) and 3D production has ushered in a new era of creativity and marketing. Stefan Barthold offers an in-depth perspective on how these technologies redefine content creation and storytelling. Through Barthold’s expertise, this interview highlights the transformative potential of CG and 3D production, emphasizing their role as powerful tools for innovation in visual narratives and brand engagement. Join us as we explore Barthold’s visionary insights into the future of digital storytelling, where technology and creativity converge to craft compelling realities.

Q: Let’s start with an introduction. Could you tell us about yourself? 

A: My name is Stefan, and I’ve been in the footwear industry for almost 20 years. I started my career in product marketing and moved over into the digital area at a time when people didn’t even use the term digital yet, so I’m quite a pioneer in this area! I’ve been around for a while, and my focus has always been content creation and digital product presentation.

Q: How do you stay current with the rapid advancements in technology? What resources do you find most valuable?

A: My role is to create space for creative people to bring technology forward, so I do a couple of things. I don’t have a specific 3D background (my background is actually in business), so I ensure I have continuous exchanges with my team. They’re a very knowledgeable team of 3D experts, so I love to speak to them because they usually know more than I do, and that’s where I learn. So talking to the experts is one of them.

The other one is listening to podcasts. I don’t have a specific one to recommend because I jump from podcast to podcast. Sometimes, they seem interesting for one episode, then you move on to the next. So, I consistently listen to podcasts based on the topics they have.

Conferences are a big one that I like to go to personally. One of the biggest ones, at least for digital, is the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas—and it’s not just the show floor that’s impressive. They have a set of panel discussions you can go to with thought leaders from around the world on different digital topics. Every time I go there (it happens every January), there’s a lot of new stuff. I’ve come to use it as an excellent source to prepare for all the upcoming topics or digital trends. But there’s, of course, a variety of relevant conferences. However, I’ve found that the CES is the best for my role to get a broad overview of what’s happening in different digital sectors.

Q: Were you at this past CES conference in January? What were some of the big things that came up?

A: That’s hard because the digital topic is so broad. The one overarching theme was definitely artificial intelligence because it’s everywhere. CES has panel conversations that cluster by topics (called ‘tracks’) ranging from digital agriculture, digital health, smart homes, safety infrastructure, and others. But I tend to go to those relevant tracks for me as a content producer, usually ‘Digital Hollywood’ or ‘AR/ XR.’

Within my area, I think the three biggest trends are:

1. You can’t neglect artificial intelligence.

2. There’s a huge push into XR headsets. With the rise of AI, more content becomes available on these headset devices, so they’ve started investing in custom chips for the headsets. Before, they would run on mobile phone chips, and the quality wasn’t the best. They’ve now changed it because it’s worth investing in these chips. And with better quality, the adoption rate will change for these glasses, making it very likely that many people will eventually have them. If you think about the Meta Quest 3 or the Apple Vision Pro that just came out and you try them, the quality is amazing.

It seems clear the adoption rate for these headsets won’t be the same as for mobile phones, which skyrocketed; the adoption rate is expected to be around the same as with home computers in the 1980s. People bought them and used them primarily for gaming, but once they were in the house, people started to recognize that they were good for other things, too.

3. That also brings me to the third trend, which is spatial computing. With more people owning these devices, having spatial content will be more necessary. These days, so many people are already spending a huge amount of time in spatial environments, but only on 2D screens. Think about how many people use Roblox.

I read that the Video Gaming Awards were watched (on the web) by more than three times the number of people who watched the Academy Awards on TV. That’s how many people are in these spatial environments already but on flat screens. In the future, that will change with these devices; they will change into spatial experiences. That’s where spatial computing becomes important. We have to think about how we present content and how we make these experiences great if everybody owns an XR headset.

So those were the big trends. Obviously, we’re not quite there yet, but this is what’s going on in the world of 3D and computer-generated content.

The only consistent thing at this company is change, so you either embrace it or it breaks you…

Q: What advice would you give to a forward-thinking brand looking to level up its experiential marketing strategies? 

A: It is important to own that experience and expertise in-house. In the world of 3D and CG, where you create these immersive experiences, there are so many different software that you can use, and there’s no standard. That means you can go to any agency to help you, but you’ll always start from scratch. It makes sense to at least build up a small internal hub that defines what standards your company wants to work with, and then you can start to build up libraries to fall back on.

You need assets and the digital twin of your products because that’s what takes a long time to create. If you hire an agency and ask them to create content, they’ll spend a lot of time getting the product right. But, suppose you as a company can already control that asset and its high-quality digital twin. In that case, that agency can invest all of its time in the experience itself.

You can also start to reuse the content that you’ve been producing if you define standards within your company. But you need that guiding principle within your brand to know where things are headed and to keep things on track because otherwise, it’s too scattered. That’s why in-house expertise, at least a small hub, is key.

Q: Could you explain the concept of CG production in a way that’s easy for someone without a technical background to understand?

A: In order to understand it, let’s think about a traditional content production process, which is photo or film. You take a photo or film a scene and then have a piece of content created with that device. In CG, you basically create that piece of content on your computer. And what you need for that is a “digital twin” of the product.

So, if we talk about the sporting goods industry, think about basketball shoes. You need the representation of the basketball shoe digitally on your computer, and you have two ways of actually getting that. You can model it on your computer, and you can imagine that as if you were modeling something in clay—just on the computer. Plus, you can add textures and make it look real. That’s an effortful process for CG artists, though, so that doesn’t really scale. But you can create any piece of the shoe, and then later on, you can tear it apart and animate any part of the shoe. That’s one way of creating a digital twin.

Another way is 3D scanning. You put a physical product into a photogrammetry booth that has a lot of cameras that will take thousands of pictures in one second. Then, a piece of software assembles all these pictures into a 3D representation of the shoe. That piece of technology has evolved a lot over the past 3/4 years because it used to be slow, costly, and you would get low-quality imagery. As technology has evolved, you’re now in a position to get a really great quality scan at a good speed and a good price so you can actually create a lot of these digital twins.

This is where computer-generated production is an interesting model versus photography. With photography, you just need a camera to take the picture. But the downfall of a photo camera is that if you have that picture, that’s it. If you have a 3D file, you can animate it, you can make it explode, or you can put it in different backgrounds. You can also have augmented reality. So you don’t create the content piece, but you make the base to create multiple content pieces. That’s really the strength of CG over photos and film, although it takes more effort to create.

Q: How do you decide between whether you want to model a specific project or whether you want to 3D scan it?

A:  It depends on the project. Let’s say you have a campaign for a limited number of products. In that case, modeling may be best because you can animate the whole thing with modeling. You can let the laces fly away, or the outsole can break open to see the inside technology. You can do this if you have a small number of products, and it is perfect for campaigns since they usually have a limited number of products.

But if you talk about scale—if you want to show 1,000 products on a product listing page in CG and they don’t need to do anything—then scanning is the right thing. When you scan, you get one lump dataset that you can’t take apart anymore and can’t animate. Still, you have the representation of the shoe, and that’s basically the distinction. It really boils down to this: What do you want to do with this file? What’s the purpose? What’s the scale?

Q: What are some cost implications of utilizing CG imagery in marketing compared to traditional marketing methods?

A: That is a very interesting question because it’s hard to compare. When you just need the still of a shoe on a surface, standard product photography is cheap and easy. But it’s still just one picture versus in 3D, where you can get multiple versions and scenes of the same shoe. That 3D image becomes a building block for a wide variety of content.

The more you think about it, let’s say you travel to South Africa to find a beach for photos if you have a campaign. You get there, it starts to rain, and the production team has to stay two weeks longer than anticipated. CG can be much more environmentally friendly and cheaper because you can control weather conditions on your computer. This is when it starts to pay off.

Q: How do you envision this new 3D content creation technology shaping the future of online and in-store customer experiences?

A: Let’s say Gen Z, who are considered Digital Natives, are already adopting things. They are used to things like Snapchat’s immersive augmented reality experiences that they see on their phones, but they are used to lower quality. At the same time, especially for luxury brands, consumers still expect photo-real, authentic images with a high-quality standard. So that’s why you don’t want to replace photography at all. You can use photography and CG in complementary ways.

In the future, it will also have more impact on the new generation coming in. So if you talk about Gen Z as Digital Natives, then the next generation, Gen Alpha, is said to be the Spatial Natives. These will be the generation that will be used to headsets and being in these virtual rooms. And I think that will do something to their shopping behavior. It is too early to say what it will be, but that’s a new generation growing up with spatial experiences.

With photography, you take a picture and that's it. If you have a 3D file, you can animate it, make it explode, put it in different backgrounds, or you can even have augmented reality...

Q: Can you discuss the challenges and solutions in maintaining authenticity and ethical transparency in CG content?

A: In CG, challenges are usually technical. Some materials are hard to display if you think about things like reflective materials. From a technical point of view, it is still hard to showcase in 3D, and that’s where you have to spend a bit of manual work to close the gap and make it look “nice.” This is where you can fail with authenticity just by looking at the product.

Another challenge with CG at the moment is humans or metahumans. There’s a phenomenon called ‘The Uncanny Valley.’ That is when you look at metahumans or avatars that are meant to be photoreal; they look really ‘good’ and really ‘real,’ but there’s just one thing that your eyes can’t detect that our brain recognizes. That’s the Uncanny Valley, and overcoming that is really hard. You need to spend a lot of time working on that avatar to get it right with really good people. Because of this difficulty with metahumans, at least in the area where I’m working, we focus a lot on the product.

Q: What roles will continued AI and Machine Learning advancements play in 3D production?

A: That’s a big question. It will play a huge role in almost any aspect of our lives. We’re using generative AI quite a bit now. Still, it can lead to ethical and legal problems. For example, if you ask AI to create something, how do you ensure you don’t steal somebody else’s IP or work? So we’re not there yet where we push a button and get the final result, but AI today is already helping to increase the speed of the processes. You can use AI to speed up the concept phase, which can make things move faster. It will be interesting to see how brands and the world, in general, will handle these ethical and legal questions. It will play a huge role and will definitely increase the speed with which content is created, and naturally, that will lead to a lot more content, too.

Q: How does AR play into current 3D production processes?

A: Augmented reality is almost like a byproduct when you create a 3D file. Hence, there’s not much effort if you have that digital twin; you basically have an augmented reality file. It is super easy if you have the right people at hand to create an AR experience. For a long time, brands have been trying to find the best use case, and there are already a lot of really good ones. They’re just not really visible because many of those happen in B2B or in education. Think about going to a specific historic ground where buildings are torn apart. You can’t see the whole thing, but you put on your AR goggles and suddenly see what it looked like 500 years ago. Think about what that does for education.

Or if you think about a car manufacturer who’s training his workforce. In the past, they had to use real cars to show them how to put a headlight in. Now, they can do that virtually. So, there are a lot of good use cases, especially in education and workforce education.

It’s trickier with commercial use cases because it tends to feel “gimmicky.” We see virtual try-ons a lot; people like it, but it doesn’t really give you an indication about the fit. If you think about the beauty industry, they are using AR very commercially, where you can try out lipsticks, find a match for your skin tone, or change the color of your hair. Those use cases are already quite advanced. For others, it’s hard. I’ve seen statistics that show that it is a gimmick that works and helps to sell, but that’s really it.

Then again, it’s more complicated for the sports industry if we talk about shoes. In footwear, it’s somewhat simple to do. Still, if you think about apparel, it’s much more complicated because of several limitations. How do you hold your phone to see that the jacket you’re trying fits? You probably need a very long arm for that! And then how is the material? What about the wrinkles? So, there are some limitations with specific products, such as apparel. For other products, like the beauty industry, it works very well with many commercial use cases.

Q: Reflecting on your career, what was the best piece of advice you received, and how has it helped you?

A: My first line manager, Felix, told me: “The only consistent thing at this company is change, so you either embrace it or it breaks you…” That made me curious because I thought if things are changing so much, I need to stay ahead, embrace, and enjoy the change rather than oppose it. If we think about change management, it’s always a difficult process because people are afraid of new things. But that advice helped me appreciate changes and see the opportunities rather than the risks. At that time, I wasn’t even working in a digital environment, but maybe it helped me to work in this area because I could cope with that fast pace.

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