The present and the future are in 3D, according to Sketchfab co-founder and CEO Alban Denoyel. The reason for this is that the physical world itself is in 3D and, as more technologies open up more ways to capture, create, and use 3D models, the more everyone in that world will need a place to publish the content of their 3D lives and share them across the web. Sketchfab is primed to be a leading platform for the evolving 3D ecosystem and it’s not just because they received $7 million in Series A funding led by FirstMark Capital, but it’s the start-up’s business model itself that has enabled Sketchfab to earn those investments, something I realized when interviewing Alban recently.
As it stands, Sketchfab has grown into a community made up of hundreds of thousands of users and over 300,000 models. It is integrated into a wide variety of websites, software, and devices, including: Facebook, 3D Studio Max, Minecraft, reddit, Unity, Solidworks, Kickstarter, Photoshop, the Scanify 3D scanner, and more. This year, the company partnered with 3D Hubs to allow users to 3D print models using 3D Hubs’ growing network of more than 18,000 3D printers. And, most recently, Sketchfab found itself working alongside Microsoft to see models created with the company’s new HoloLens augmented reality system published directly to Sketchfab.
The site is connected to almost every piece of software, hardware, or publishing platform that you can think of as relevant to 3D data. “And,” Alban tells me, “given that the world is in 3D, that’s a lot of companies.” Today’s news that the start-up has received $7 million in funding means that you’ll begin to see the Sketchfab platform in even more places and connected to even more devices, especially as the 3D ecosystem continues to evolve. And, though the site will certainly help drive that evolution, it started quite small, as the tool of a single 3D developer whose clients needed a way to share and display their models.
The story begins with WebGL, released by Mozilla in 2011 as the first web standard to display 3D graphics via web browser. Alban explains that, as soon as the format was released, his co-founder, Cedric Pinson, knew that it would change everything. “When they released WebGL, Cedric, a 3D programmer for 15 years, says he immediately believed that this had the potential to become the standard. At the time, it wasn’t standard at all because it was just running on Firefox.” Alban continues, “He started geeking around with WebGL and ended up being hired by Mozilla to make the first demo WebGL for the launch of Firefox 4 in 2011. Then, he moved out on his own and started programming with WebGL and consulting around that. And, as he was working on a daily basis with 3D artists, mostly in the gaming industry, they were in need of a tool to share 3D files with him and show their work.”
Alban tells me, “He basically built the tool he needed for himself, which was something to upload a 3D file to a browser and display it. He worked on that for a year by himself, without telling anybody, but just using it with his friends and clients.” Meanwhile, Alban, with a background in business, was just getting into 3D printing. “I’m sort of a Maker; I do sculpture. I started in 2011 to do modeling and clay sculpting. And that’s how I discovered 3D printing. All of this was back in France, in Paris,” Alban says. “I discovered 3D printing in 2011 and nobody was talking about it in France at that time, so I was telling everyone about it and how cool it was. And, so, in January, I was at this party and someone said to me, ‘Hey, you should talk to this guy Cedric back there. He knows a bit about 3D.’ So, I go and chat with him.”
The following day, Cedric showed Alban his prototype, called Show WebGL, which was already capable of uploading a 3D file and displaying it in a web browser. At the time, Denoyel knew nothing about 3D modeling, WebGL, and the entire 3D ecosystem. “So it was hard for me to get a sense of the value of it,” he says. “But I thought it was pretty cool and, as I’m a creative person and like visual stuff – working in the media and photography world – I liked the whole concept of it. And, so I decided to start working on the non-technical aspects as a side project. It was a side project for him and a side project for me.”
It was only a brief six weeks before Cedric went from showing Alban Show WebGL over lunch to the launch of what would become Sketchfab. “I started to help spread the word and picked a new name, which was Sketchfab – much better than Show WebGL. So, we launched the site under the name Sketchfab.” Alban explains that, the very next day, Blender Nation published an article about their platform, adding, “Within 3 weeks, we had a thousand users and that’s when we realized that we were onto something. So, we teamed up officially and incorporated the business.”
I was blown away by the time line for these events, particularly for Alban who just happened to meet his coding co-founder by chance. The Sketchfab CEO, too, was surprised by the serendipitous turn of events. “It was like, here is the Ferrari and here is the key. Go drive it.”
At first, Alban and his co-founder weren’t quite sure where to drive the Ferrari. “We started more with a vision of private sharing: ‘I’m an architect and I share this file with a client.’ Almost like a Dropbox for 3D files.” The site had a goal of displaying and sharing a 3D file on the web, hoping to make the process as seamless as possible for the user. But, as the grew larger, they realized the huge potential for the site. “It was only as we grew and as our database of content grew that we realized that there was potential for being more than just a tool, but to be a media format and a content platform. Once you’re a content platform, there are all of these things that you can build around – all of those 3D use cases: one is 3D printing, one is download for video games, one is VR, one is AR, one is 3D embeds for e-commerce. But all of this needs the content to sit somewhere. And that’s the goal of Sketchfab.”
While Cedric may have designed the car, Alban would make an excellent driver, taking Sketchfab into every nook and cranny of the 3D ecosystem with a two-pronged approach: to be the best player for 3D files and to be the largest repository of 3D files. The CEO describes his approach to me, “Our big vision is to be the YouTube for 3D files, which is maybe not the best analogy, but it encompasses two important aspects that made YouTube successful. One is to be the most awesome player for our file format, as YouTube was the best player for video. And, if you look at each file format, they each gave birth to a major platform: Slideshare for slides, Soundcloud for sounds. And we want to be the best player for 3D files. This means taking as many formats as possible and having our viewer embeddable in as many places as possible. And,” Alban continues, “the second key element is to be the largest repository for this file format, just as YouTube is the largest repository for videos. So, we are slowly getting there. We have more than 200,000 3D files at 1,000 uploads per day.”
Alban reflected that, as 3D technology progresses, such a ubiquitous player for 3D files will become increasingly important to everyday consumers. When there are 3D cameras in a greater number of computing systems, such as the various devices housing Intel’s RealSense 3D camera, more and more of us will upload our 3D captures to the web. Virtual and augmented reality, Alban suggests, are also opening up 3D technology – and, therefore, Sketchfab – to more people. “The big, new trend is VR and AR. And what’s great for us is that it’s opening up a more consumer market for us. Because, whatever you say about 3D printing, it’s still not a super consumer-focused technology. But we have a 3D portrait of Obama on Sketchfab and you can bring it into AR and see it in your room with the HoloLens. That matters to everybody. Or, the day the Apple Watch is released, you can project it onto your wrist in AR, as it’s hosted on Sketchfab, and that’s something that everybody will want. So, it’s a great opportunity for us.”
It’s this attempt to spread Sketchfab to as many venues as possible that opened them up to two of their biggest partners so far: Microsoft and Facebook. Given the announcement of Microsoft’s HoloLens, such a partnership is not entirely surprising, but it took some time for Sketchfab to make inroads with the PC pioneer. “We’ve been in touch with Microsoft, pretty much since the beginning. And, something like 18 months ago, they got a bit closer to us, saying that they were looking at things in which we could be involved. It was pretty vague,” Alban recalls. “And then, six months ago, they said they had a plan that they wanted to share with us, where we could be a great fit. And they couldn’t share this by email or phone, so they invited us to the Microsoft HQ and showed us the HoloLens.”
“It was actually the day they acquired Minecraft that they contacted us,” he continues. “We have a Minecraft add-on to export Minecraft things to Sketchfab. And I was like, ‘Is this related to Minecraft?’ And it wasn’t at all. It was a pretty big surprise for us… My co-founder came from France. I came from New York. And we spent three days there and did a lot of demos [with the HoloLens]. And they explained to us where Sketchfab could fit into this ecosystem. And it just made perfect sense for us. So, we started working on that six months ago.”
When you see videos of the HoloLens in action, it’s pretty hard to believe. Having been burned by new technology in the past, I was wary that those visions of virtual 3D robots projected onto the physical world wouldn’t play out so well when the HoloLens hit the market. Alban seems confident, however. “I tried it six months ago and I expect the newer versions to be even better. I think that the hard thing to achieve was to lock things in specific places, which means that [the Hololens] need[s] to understand your surroundings. And I think they did a great job with that. I played this game where there’s this little character running on the couch next to me. And it was actually running on the couch! This means that [the HoloLens] understands where the couch is. And the display itself – well, you really see the shapes! It’s pretty impressive. I think that the only limiting factor is the field of view, but you can’t have everything. I expect it to keep improving.”
Facebook was another story altogether. “Our two key ingredients to build our ecosystem are to integrate with all sources of 3D content: 3D tools like 3DS Max, Solidworks, Minecraft, 3D scanning. We want all of those guys to have a ‘Publish to Sketchfab’ option – just like in iMovie, you have a publish to YouTube option – to be the shortest path from your tool to the web. And, once it’s on Sketchfab, we want you to be able to publish it all across the web so that it can meet an audience.” Alban continued, “And, very early on, we’ve been reaching out to pretty much all publishing platforms. We started more with creative ones, like Behance and Kickstarter. And, as we started to grow, we started pitching larger platforms. We got supported on reddit. The Holy Grail is Facebook and Twitter.”
Dealing with such a large platform as Facebook proved to be slow at first, Alban says. “Those discussions went no where for three years. It was hard to find a relevant contact and have the right messaging and be a credible partner. Six months ago, we started a conversation that was sort of going nowhere because the person thought we were a video format and wasn’t actually checking the links we were sending. So, we had to make videos to show what we were about. We did mock-ups of our viewer integrated into Facebook and she ended up sending us to another of her colleagues.” But, once they were able to track down the right person and get into a serious conversation, things moved quite quickly the CEO points out. “And these guys stayed radio silent for like two months and we would send him an email every week. And, then, all of a sudden, he was like, ‘Hey, guys, can we speak tomorrow? I have good news.’ And, two weeks later, we were live on Facebook.”
Telling me across the flat video channel of Skype, “Capturing the world in 3D will be normal. Capturing the key moments of your day, like family portraits… and you’ll publish this on a platform like Sketchfab. And you’ll be able to bring someone as a hologram into your room – like my grandmother, if she passed away, or my son, if he’s traveling abroad – and it will be much more natural for us to merge digital and physical worlds and environments.” The CEO has already begun to kick off this sort of world, by regularly publishing both 3D selfies, using a variety of 3D scanners on the market, and 3D portraits of his newborn, William. The loving father’s portraits are so ongoing that, one day, William may be the first child with a 3D photo album.
Tying the 3D worlds of 3D printing, modeling, and VR/AR, Alban paints a picture of his own company’s destiny, “My dream is that, two years from now, when Tesla releases a new car, they will want to also release a virtual version of it and use Sketchfab for that. And, once it’s on Sketchfab, Tesla will be able to embed it onto their website for retail and marketing purposes. You’ll be able to download the file to put into a video game, 3D print it for your kid, and try it at home with an Oculus or a Hololens.”
From my own perspective, the start-up is among the few that is ready for this future. And the CEO seems to concur saying that, when 3D cameras are integrated into every smartphone and VR/AR are commonplace, “Well, we’ll be in a very good spot.” Based on the $7 million in funding just secured, their investors seem to agree.