Stone Soup is the Recipe for Innovation

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light bulb exploding with stone soup innovation

Leaders in the tech space are often asked for our secret sauce: the questions we ask ourselves, or the problem-solving framework we use to see the future before anyone else does. The most revolutionary technologies of our era aren’t based on any one individual’s secret recipe, though. They’re Stone Soup.

You might know the story: a soldier comes to a town experiencing famine. The villagers try to turn him away, claiming they are hungry and have nothing to share, but he surprises them by offering to make enough broth for everyone using a magic stone. As he cooks, the villagers all contribute a little something—some cabbage, a handful of potatoes—until at the end of the day, there is indeed a feast that nourishes the whole town.

On The Digital Executive podcast, I told Brian that I always assume I can solve a problem until I discover that I can’t. There are, of course, many problems that I personally cannot solve – but I often find that, like the villagers in the folktale, when I pool knowledge and resources with my peers, we are able to build something that benefits the whole community. 

Giving back

This is why, in addition to my duties as director of R&D for Wayfair Next, I volunteer my time to work on open standards with the Khronos Group. Khronos’s 3D Commerce Working Group, which I chair, has members from over 80 different companies spanning the technology spectrum. The biggest names in e-commerce are here, alongside the companies that make the technologies enabling immersive e-commerce experiences, like Google, Autodesk, and Microsoft. By sharing our perspectives, pain points, and expertise, we’ve been able to tackle several problems that no one could solve on their own.

The 3D Commerce Working Group was formed in 2019 in order to make it easier to develop 3D content for e-commerce applications. The use of 3D models in online shopping and advertising was growing more popular quickly, but it was a lawless country—retail, software, and hardware providers were all racing to develop this technology, and all implementing it differently. This left brands and content creators in a bad position: there was no way to create a single 3D asset that could be used across every device and platform where it might be needed.

That’s a very hard technical problem, and any effective solution would require competitors across the industry to agree and buy in. Open standards are good for addressing precisely this kind of challenge. Non-profit open standards developer the Khronos Group was a natural home for this work because, like the soldier in the story, they had something we could build around: the glTF™ file format. glTF was one of few things everyone agreed on at the start: it is a compact, universally useful file format that can run just about anywhere, including mobile devices, PC desktops and the cloud. We think of it as “the JPEG of 3D.”

Caption: 3D glTF model of olives under a glass dome. Rendered in real-time in the Babylon.js Sandbox. Model copyright 2021 Wayfair LLC, CC BY 4.0.

Over the past year and a half, the working group members have brought our expertise in retail and 3D technology to bear on optimizing the process of using glTF for e-commerce applications. In that time, we’ve managed to improve the utility of glTF for our purposes and create tools to help artists and tool providers achieve more consistent results.

We’ve worked with Khronos’s 3D Formats group to build extensions for glTF, enabling more photorealistic 3D models and creating ways to add different versions of a product – variations on color and materials – into a single asset. We also collaborated on a new texture container format, KTX 2.0, with universal compression. KTX reduces file size and memory requirements for 3D models, so that even as interactive experiences get more advanced, consumers can still shop on a smartphone instead of needing a gaming PC.

Get involved

Even as we’ve built out glTF, we’ve also made tools to help artists and retailers achieve consistent results. We produced asset creation guidelines to furnish experienced 3D content developers with best practices for e-commerce. We also recently launched a viewer certification tool that will help make sure a glTF model looks the same on any platform, so that creators can build one model and use it everywhere – in digital storefronts, apps, advertisements or whatever other interactive consumer engagements the future holds. All of these guidelines are freely available, and these standards are open and royalty-free. In 18 months, we’ve prepared a feast for the e-commerce industry, and created tools that will benefit our own businesses directly.

Every technology leader can benefit from participating in a community of problem solvers. The Khronos Group creates open, royalty-free interoperability standards for 3D graphics, virtual and augmented reality, and parallel computation. If your organization touches these spaces, I would strongly recommend learning more and getting involved.

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