From competition to collaboration: defining industry standards for AR Shopping

Origin story of an industry alliance

Imagine Facebook at the bar with Google. Amazon sitting beside Shopify. IKEA eating lunch with Wayfair. Samsung over in the corner chatting with LG. 

A few years ago I organized a meeting among these rivals that later became an industry alliance. Together, we found a way for competitors to work together for a common purpose. Convincing these industry leaders to shift gears from competition to collaboration was no small feat. Below is how it happened and what I learned while pulling it together. 

Listen for the pearls your partners drop

I was at Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis when an executive told me something very unusual: “this is so frustrating we would be willing to talk with our competitors.” That comment echoed through my head. At the time, I was leading commerce partnerships for Google’s augmented reality (AR) team.  

She was referring to the difficulty her team was facing as they tried to distribute Target’s library of 3D assets. 3D assets are the foundational building block of AR. 

Like Legos, there's a limit to what you can build  if your building blocks aren't interoperable with others.  In this case, Target's team had invested sizable dollars into a library of 3D models of their products. This is no secret - you can find Target’s high-quality 3D models right on their website. Target’s frustration was that after investing in these costly 3D assets they then had to invest even more to convert those 3D assets into different formats required by different tech platforms, like Google, Apple, Facebook, Snap, Microsoft, etc.  Each platform had different technical specifications. Compounding this problem was a lack of standards for how these assets are rendered on each platform.  This required teams from Target (and other retailers) to tweak colors for each platform they wanted to show their asset on.

In short, there was no jpeg for 3D assets, no simple format that worked seamlessly across the web. 

Technical standards are not sexy. But they are critical to scaling technologies we rely on, from electricity to automobiles and telecommunication. And technical standards will be critical to technologies of tomorrow, like crypto, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence. In his seminal essay about the metaverse, Matthew Ball writes,”the Internet as we experience it today works because of standards and protocols for visual presentation, file loading, communications, graphics, data, and so forth.”  These standards simply did not exist (yet) for AR.

In the weeks that followed my trip to Minneapolis I shared Target’s comment with other retail partners - Walmart, Lowe’s, Wayfair, IKEA, Shopify, JD.com. They each agreed that there were fundamental challenges to 3D technical standards. But would they be willing to join  a conference call with their competitors to share their frustrations with our team at Google? Some were more weary than others. To my surprise, every single one said yes. I had no idea where this would lead. But I knew it would be interesting.

Group therapy for engineers and visual artists 

As the first call began, our team asked each other “will they actually talk with each other?’ Or would we sit in awkward silence.” One by one, technical design leads from several of the largest retailers dialed in to the call. Walmart. Wayfair. Lowe’s. Target. IKEA. And once they started talking they wouldn't stop. I could hear in their voices a sense of relief that they felt hearing each other share the same frustrations. 

What ultimately grew into an industry alliance began as a series of group therapy sessions. These were experts at their craft - 3D graphics - commiserating about the limits of the solutions available to them. At the end of that first call these competitors seemed eager for another call to share their aggravations with 3D workflows.  After the next call, we hosted another. And then another. 

The message from these group therapy sessions was clear. Without technical standards there was no way to deliver a consistent experience or accurately reflect the size and color of products to shoppers on different platforms. 

Our team at Google realized that we could not, on our own, solve the problems these retailers were facing. We needed players from across the ecosystem to come together.  

Find your honeypot 

Nearly every major consumer tech company is betting that AR will become a major computing platform. Long before Facebook became “Meta,” Apple, Google, Snap and Epic were investing into technology to deliver new, immersive computing experiences using AR. This also includes B2B tools and content platforms like Shopify, Unity, Autodesk, Adobe and startups like Niantic Labs. And they each view shopping as one of the key use cases for AR. Since Shoppers are buying more and more online it seems obvious that viewing a desk or shoes in 3D before you buy will eventually become as routine as viewing 2D product photographs are today. 

But to make AR shopping meaningful to consumers these tech platforms need product information that is typically owned by retailers. When I called Product Managers building AR at major tech platforms I had a simple message: 

Retailers are telling us that the lack of 3D standards is a major pain point for them. I’m sure they’re telling you the same. We will compete against each other with the AR experiences we deliver to users. But competing on technical specifications that we ask of retailers makes little sense. Next month we are organizing a one day workshop to listen to top retailer’s frustrations with 3D product content. Will you join us? 

Facebook agreed to attend. Microsoft said yes. Snap was in. Unity was in. Adobe, Autodesk, Samsung, LG. Each said yes.

Large retailers were the honeypot that attracted these tech platforms to come together in the same room. 

Enlist a neutral party  

One Fall day in 2018, sixty or so representatives from the world’s largest retailers and tech platforms and manufacturers assembled in a San Francisco home that had been converted into an intimate meeting venue. We began the day with a panel of visual artists from different retailers explaining their pain points of managing and distributing 3D assets across platforms.

Before the event I realized that a gathering with this many competitors would lose credibility if it was led by Google. So we hired a professional facilitator to lead the group throughout the day.  Together, through a series of exercises and breakouts, our facilitator helped this group of rivals define the problem, establish areas of common ground as well as areas of disagreement.

What emerged from this workshop was a palpable energy. 3D artists, engineers and product managers from competing companies spent a day together exploring how to address challenges on standard 3D formats, metadata, reference viewers, etc. But I hope you're not surprised to learn that we did not reach an agreement on any standards that day. 

In the weeks that followed the workshop we held a series of conference calls where we decided to formalize into an industry standards group. Rather than form a new organization, we found one that already existed. The Khronos Group had exactly what we needed - a legal framework for working together, organizational structure, governance, rules of engagement, etc.  

Founded in 2000, the Khronos Group is an open, non-profit, member-driven consortium of 170 organizations developing, publishing and maintaining royalty-free interoperability standards for 3D graphics. The organization oversee industry standards like webGL, Vulkan, gLTF and others. These may not be household terms but neither are ASTM (aerospace industry standards), IATF (automobile industry standards) or NSPC (plumbing standards). 

Open up and push forward

As part of joining The Khronos Group we issued an open call for organizations to participate in the effort to define standards for AR. The response exceeded our expectations. Large organizations like NVIDIA, Huawei, AMD, Pinterest and Deloitte came onboard.  Startups like 3XR, Marxent, Hexa3D joined. (Apple, a member of the Khronos Group, did not engage in this effort but that didn't stall the progress, more on that in a separate post). 

Over time the 3D Commerce Working Group has grown to over one hundred organizations. This growth has confirmed the need for standards but also creates challenges in aligning so many companies. Thankfully, Wayfair’s Shrenik Sadalgi has been an invaluable leader as have numerous sub-committee chairs (see acknowledgements below). The Khronos Group, including its chair and NVIDIA exec Neil Trevett, has been an incredible asset in navigating the complexities of this alliance. Earlier this year the 3D Alliance launched a 3D viewer certification program to ensure consistent 3D visuals across platforms. Eleven technology platforms are currently participating in the certification program, including Google, Facebook, Samsung, Amazon, Unity and Epic. 

The progress made by the 3D Commerce Working Group has been the collective effort of dozens if not hundreds of committed volunteers. I’m hopeful that one day millions of shoppers around the world will rely on AR powered in part by the standards defined by the 3D Commerce alliance. 

Final thoughts

I am sharing this story not simply because I’m proud of the role I played and excited about the progress this group has made since I left Google in 2020. A year ago when I launched This for That I published a piece titled “Why Examine Partnerships,’ where I made three points:  (1) partnerships shape outcomes, (2) transformative partnerships are hard to pull off, (3) partnerships are largely overlooked. All three statements are true of industry alliances. I plan to spend more time examining industry alliances in future This for That posts. I believe industry coalitions that foster collaboration among competitors will be key to tackling key ecosystem challenges we face in health, climate, AI, transportation and more. I hope you’ll subscribe and follow me on this journey. And if you have ideas or first-hand lessons to share from an industry alliance, I hope you will reach out to me. 

Thank you

Huge thanks to Daniel Atkins, Daniel Beauchamp, Saurabh Bhatia, Arun Batra, Eric Chadwick, Leonard Daly, Martin Enthed, Mike Festa, Kinnari Jhaveri, Tammy Jacobsen, Adrienne McCallister, Carlos Montero, Sally Huang, Aaron Luber, Lee Milstein, Cynthia Maller, Ashleigh Miller Sophie Miller, Oleg Veryovka, Pauk Ko, Nikhil Chandhok, Ross McKegney, Jonas Gustavsson, Neil Parris, Tony Parisi, Jane Rawnsley, Shrenik Sadalgi, Mason Sheffield, Emily Stearns, Adrian Tout, Neil Trevett, Jon Wade, Par Winzell. And many, many more who have contributed to 3D Commerce.

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