EPISODE 077 : 08/01/2022
Ben Conway is the co-founder and COO of VNTANA, a 3D infrastructure platform which enables 3D at scale for businesses. As the industry’s only fully automated 3D optimization and content management platform, VNTANA helps D2C brands double eCommerce conversion rates by allowing customers to view products true to size in their own physical space. Ben shares his predictions on the future of 3D and why it will be at the heart of all retailers’ Go to Market strategy over the next 5-10 years.
Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Ben Conway
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Topics discussed in this episode
- Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
- Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
- Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
- Opportunities for small business loyalty programs
Watch Spark Loyalty’s Small Business Success Channel
Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology brought to you by SnowShoe, your smarter loyalty leader Spark Plug is happy to welcome Ben Conway to the podcast today. Ben is the co-founder and CEO at Ben Ton, a 3D infrastructure platform that enables 3D at scale for businesses. So as the industry’s only fully automated 3D optimization and content management platform, Ventana helps direct to consumer brands double their ecommerce conversion rates because customers can view products true to size in their own physical space. Large brands like Adidas have used the Ventana platform to enable thousands of shoes to be used in kind of augmented reality try ons. It’s really fascinating technology at the cutting edge, so we’re really excited to welcome Ben to the podcast today. Welcome.
Ben Conway [00:00:56] Thanks for having me then.
Ashley Coates [00:00:57] Yeah, thanks so much for joining us today. Well, to start with, you’ve been running a successful company that you actually co-founded. You’ve been running this company for the past ten years now. So would love to start with what originally drew you to entrepreneurship. Think this is one of your majors that you studied at USC? Yes.
Ben Conway [00:01:15] Yes, that’s correct. It might be an overstatement to say I’ve been running a successful company for ten years. I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off for the vast majority of that time and have only in the past several years really started to figure stuff out. That’s really scales. But yeah, entrepreneurship was a major for me at USC. It was like Business Administration with an emphasis in entrepreneurship. I started working when I was 15 years old and I always kind of had a job. I worked all through college and I didn’t do great with bosses, and so I was always very drawn to this idea of kind of forging your own path. There was never, never any major problems. I just didn’t particularly enjoy being told what to do like that.
Ashley Coates [00:02:00] And do you think you saw yourself starting a companies like Beer and Bust within this industry? Did you have any notion of that?
Ben Conway [00:02:08] Definitely not. We have been a number of companies throughout the ten years that we’ve been doing this sort of stuff. It’s always touched on 3D and it’s just kind of gotten deeper and deeper and deeper to end up where we are now. And I find the space super, super fascinating. I’m particularly interested in the technology side of things, not even always for its applications, but just curiosity, because there are some really smart people working there.
Ned Hayes [00:02:33] So so Evan Turner, right now you make 3D fast and scalable for e-commerce. So can you explain more about what you do and what kinds of clients you serve?
Ben Conway [00:02:44] Sure. So we describe ourselves as a 3D infrastructure platform for a reason, because it’s not just about that last mile of delivering to e-commerce, although that’s where a lot of people see the benefits. We will actually enable 3D at every step of the product lifecycle, starting with design, moving to development, to B2B sales, to e-commerce. And so the way we do that is we have a content management system that’s headless, meaning that everything you do with a click of a button you’d be able to access via an API. So it seems like it because they can integrate it easily. And then it’s all backed by an optimization algorithm that allows us to automatically reduce 3D file sizes by up to 99% while still maintaining super high visual fidelity. So if you took like the film industry, for instance, when people are editing the movie, they’re working on proxy files because the video is shot at such high quality large resolutions, crazy high frame rates. And so they’re working on a proxy or the seems almost true for 3D. These files are hundreds of megabytes large. So especially in today’s world where you’re got remote workforces all over the planet, it’s a big problem if you’re having to work on that original file. So kind of our technology enables designers to work together faster and enables people to sell in 3D and B-to-B, whether that’s wholesale through platforms like your New Order or just sending a link to a prospective customer all the way through to e-commerce virtual try on snap lenses met our all the ecosystem of potential 3D things. We can basically optimize the asset to be distribute to that channel. That makes sense.
Ned Hayes [00:04:14] It does. I’m really interested to know what what drew you in to 3D tech in the first place. I mean, I know it’s been used for like cars and designing aircraft and spaceships, but how did you recognize the potential for this to be useful in retail and ecommerce?
Ben Conway [00:04:29] Yeah. So we started out, we’ll start a few years into the journey and we are doing location based hologram experiences and a lot of those experiences were super, they were interactive, so they were built in Unity’s game engine. And what would happen is we might do like an experience where you could fly a drone from DJI or interact with a shoe or you do a car configurator like you mentioned that. What would happen though is the brand would provide us the 3D model of the product and then it would crash the engine because it was just way too big. It was too difficult. And so we kind of kept. Running into this issue. And so we had this idea of like, well, we could automate this. Like, if we are experiencing this issue and we’re not that big of a company, imagine that scale. And we saw all the different use cases that were coming down the pipeline and were like, This is going to be a really big problem for a lot of people soon. And so we actually pivoted the business away to focus on not location based experiences, but providing this kind of infrastructure for optimizing 3D assets and distributing them. That happened at the end of 2019, which turned out to be extremely fortuitous timing for us, because the goal was to kind of slowly phase out the location based experiences, and they phased out immediately, like February, March of 2020. And so we actually had raised around the funding at the end of 2019 predicated on this new kind of infrastructure that we were going to build out for 3D.
Ashley Coates [00:05:45] Very exciting and very fortuitous.
Ben Conway [00:05:47] So that’s kind of how we got into it. And in terms of the space that we’re in, we focused pretty heavily on fashion. We’ll work with other industries as well, but we started out in the fashion industry and the reason that we started there is that it’s a huge issue for them right now. They’re focused on sustainability. They’re focused on go to market faster. They’ve got all sorts of supply chain issues like everyone else. And so there’s these programs like CLO and Browse where whereas what they’re called that have come online in some of the men around for 20 years but are really coming into their own now. And so fashion brands are designing natively in 3D or they’re taking original 2D sketches and building the actual model in 3D. And there’s a massive disconnect because the people that are using those 3D programs aren’t 3D artists from the game engine space or from the gaming space. They’re really expert garment makers and the programs they work in function similarly to how they would think about designing the garment. So when it gets to the place where it’s actually a 3D model of its output, they’re kind of at a loss as to how do I leverage this somewhere else? And so that’s why we decided to go there is because we saw they’ve got tens of thousands of assets through on an annual basis. They lack the internal knowledge and the infrastructure. And so we saw a real opportunity. So that’s kind of how we started there.
Ned Hayes [00:06:59] That’s really fascinating. So what kind of 3D modeling do your customers used? Do they use it mostly internally or do they use it externally?
Ben Conway [00:07:10] Yeah.
Ned Hayes [00:07:10] Can you tell us more about the different use cases?
Ben Conway [00:07:13] Sure. So the way that 3D gets used in fashion starts out on design and also iterative design. So like once they have a 3D version of this, they’re able to make changes to it way faster than you ever could with a prototype. Right? So you just get this very good representation of what might this garment ultimately look like. And so they’ll use it early on in that process. After it’s been kind of approved, it goes through a few revisions, then they’ll use it in their go to market, and that’s going to be selling in like B2B channels. Like I mentioned before, like, okay, I click on some 2D images from a photoshoot or ideally renders they’re going to generate a render. And for those of you who don’t know what a render is, just think of it as like a still image that is, a computer will compute how light will look on this 3D model and try and make it look as photorealistic as possible. And it will spit out a 2D image that is virtually indistinguishable from if you took a photo. And so that’s where they’re most often using it today as they’re generating these 2D images from the base 3D model and they’re using them to replace actual photography and that lets them generate photography faster because I won’t use their name, but it’s one of the biggest athletic apparel brands in the world, said that it takes them about 24 days after they’ve received the shoe, before they ever even get a photo. So that’s a really, really long lag time. So that’s why the renders were important. They’re starting to leverage actual 3D models alongside it. So like a 3D model you could interact with, like maybe you see on a furniture store today. And then the last bit of it, which is coming along a little bit more slowly but starting to grow pretty rapidly as, Hey, can I have 3D on my website? So like we work with Diesel. Diesel’s a customer. Diesel launched their pride collection in 3D. So alongside their 2D imagery, they had a 3D model and you can click View and AR and you can see that 3D garment in your space. And so that’s what we’re starting to see a lot more of. And ultimately we’ll get more into like the virtual try on of apparel and all that good stuff. But that’s where people are using it mostly today.
Ashley Coates [00:09:02] So when can you actually talk more about the shopper experience with 3D and how a 3D model can enhance that shopping experience? What what benefits does it bring to the consumer?
Ben Conway [00:09:14] Yeah. So I think that one of the biggest benefits that it brings is that just gives them more confidence and a better understanding of the product, depending on who you’re buying from. Sometimes imagery is lacking. They don’t have all the angles that you might want to see. You just don’t fully understand the product in the same way as you can manipulate it as if it was in front of you. So you can actually like move it around, understand all those different properties, zoom in on the details. Seeing it in your space, I think is really important. I also think there’s kind of a distinction. I don’t know that it’s always beneficial for every single product category, but the reality is 3D is going to be at the heart of everyone’s go to market strategy over the next 5 to 10 years. It’s just not it’s not really optional. And the reason is, it’s like, why would you produce physical samples when you can produce a digital twin at a lower cost, faster with the ability to then leverage it and all these new selling platforms that are coming out. And so, you know, the way that it reduces returns for like handbags, for instance, is when you see it in air, you put it next to a bag you own, you’re like, Cool, that’s what a 14 inch handbag looks like. We oftentimes have a hard time visualizing what physical dimensions are when we just read them, but seeing them is super helpful. So I’d say that’s kind of where the benefits are coming from today.
Ned Hayes [00:10:19] So you just use the phrase digital twin. And I heard that phrase used in industrial Internet of Things use cases, but I haven’t heard it used in consumer retail. So is this digital twin idea kind of converging with the kind of try it on apparel use case that you described earlier? Or is this the same thing or is this a different thing?
Ben Conway [00:10:39] I think it’s the same thing in a lot of ways. I think there’s two versions of digital twins that people talk about. I think that there’s digital twins that happen after the physical product has been produced that’s often done with scanning, or it’s an agency that’s hired to create a 3D version of the preexisting product. What we’re seeing an enormous increase in is digital twins that start at the same time. That’s your idea to build a physical product starts. And that is where I think there’s an enormous amount of value to be unlocked because if you’re creating natively in 3D and you have this digital twin earlier on in the process, it opens up all these new avenues for selling, for getting feedback from customers like, would you buy this? Wouldn’t you buy this? And the virtual try on might start converging there. I think we’re going to see stuff happen earlier and earlier before products ever even actually get produced because you’re going to have the digital twin is going to be born before their physical counterpart actually will, if that makes sense. So I think that these worlds are converging and retail is starting to wake up to the fact that it’s going to be really important to their business.
Ashley Coates [00:11:42] So, Ben, you mentioned that one of the things that Bastion is really dealing with is sustainability. And I was actually curious if 3D can help fashion brands with sustainability in any way.
Ben Conway [00:11:52] Yeah, so 3D can absolutely assist with sustainability. And that’s a big reason why a lot of them are adopting it. The reason being prototyping is enormously inefficient. They’ll tool up an entire factory, especially on the textile side. They’ll produce hundreds of yards of a textile to create a prototype. And then if it doesn’t get adopted, or even if it does, it might get tossed and might get modified slightly, and then it just goes in the waste. So that’s a big problem for them. If they can make better decisions faster and sooner using 3D, it can help them eliminate an enormous amount of waste.
Ashley Coates [00:12:25] That’s very cool. Well, so to take a step back and just talk about technology in retail in general, so the last two years have obviously greatly accelerated the evolution of technology in retail. How have the last two years since the pandemic hit affected 3D specifically?
Ben Conway [00:12:42] I think it was a wake up call for a lot of brands. The brands that had a 3D strategy were able to navigate through it, I think, a little bit more easily than others. And it goes back to that idea I was talking about earlier of like renders. If you had a 3D version, you could show your buyers what the product was going to look like with pretty good accuracy versus the people that were waiting on their goods to get in from China in their factory, shut down or whatever else. They didn’t have anything to show except the sketches. And so that was a big problem for people. So I think it massively accelerated the adoption. People started to understand, use cases a little bit more. People are doing a better job of architecting how they might use 3D across the entire value chain. That being said, I think people should have a realistic view of where it’s at. I still think we’re very early on. I think we’re super early on. That’s my view on all things Metaverse. I think there’s just an enormous amount of hype and people who love jump on that AI bandwagon. I think there’s a lot of cool applications for 3D today, but I don’t think that by the end of next year, in the next 12 months, it’s going to be this incredibly enormous market that every brand has totally adopted. I think we’re going to see it be a little bit more gradual and some of these really strong use cases are all of a sudden going to drive an inflection point for them. And so I think that’s where we’re moving towards. The industry is all moving there. They’re moving there much faster than they were before. But it’s not like a switch has been flipped, if that makes sense.
Ned Hayes [00:14:01] Right. Let’s play out one of those cool use cases, though. I mean, one of these days I’m hoping that real time manufacturing can be a thing. We’re talking about 3D modeling, but 3D printing, of course, has been around for a while. So. Course the two fit together. So in theory, I could go into a store. I can see it in 3D. And I could say, Yeah, that one. And it could get. What I just saw in air is kind of produced in real time for me in the store. Is that a use case that is going to happen any time in the next 12 to 24 months?
Ben Conway [00:14:32] Probably not in the 12 to 24 months unless it’s.
Ned Hayes [00:14:35] In there, because.
Ben Conway [00:14:37] I don’t know that 3D printers are going fast enough for some of that stuff. But you saw Nike and Adidas make a very large investment into manufacturing capabilities that are very customizable and that goes really hand in hand with that, like manufacturing made to order basically like more bespoke. I’m going to design my shoe to look like this and the manufacturing plan is capable of doing that. So you’re going to see that, I think, way before you see like, hey, they’re going to print it for me in the store. I do think it will go that way for certain avenues. Certain categories will make sense to have made in the store. Others, the value of brands can almost be diminished by too much customization, and I think brands are going to be attuned to that a little bit. Some brands, it’ll be like a perfect fit for their ethos. Others are like, You buy us because we know it looks good, right? And so they might limit your options or whatever. So I think it’ll be a really interesting mix to see play out.
Ashley Coates [00:15:31] Mm hmm. So I wanted to ask you about a quote that you have on your website that I thought was really great. It’s from IBM Institute of Business, and it says to ignore the implications of air would be akin to ignoring the implications of online shopping. So why is that so?
Ben Conway [00:15:48] You know, this is what I was trying to talk about a little bit earlier about level setting expectations for some of this stuff. 100% air is going to change the way that we it already is in the way that we shop, the way that we interact with products where we do lots of things. It has enormous implications. But digital twins in our physical environment, but we’re like still pretty early. We’re still pretty early in that. But what’s happening is Amazon, Microsoft, Matta, Snapchat, IBM, there is not a major technological powerhouse that doesn’t have a whole division that’s devoted into looking into this. This is then we’re getting toward that next wave of computing. And what does that look like and how does the virtual world and the real world blend? And I think it’s going to probably initially take the shape of ways that are pretty straightforward, which is like, I just want to make a more informed buying decision. I don’t want to have to go to a retail store to do this. Can augmented reality help me do that? And I think that’s what that board is speaking to, is that it really has the power to do that across large categories of items. Furniture has been a target, massive investment, IKEA, huge everything, IKEA designs, it’s done 3D, every single thing. They’ve seen crazy ROI by implementing 3-D into their business. And pretty much all of the other big furniture players are following suit. And I think we’re going to see more and more and more of that. You look at big, heavy machinery. Our manufacturing people are having to travel across the globe to go visit it because it’s only produced in this plant and it’s a massive piece of machinery. Like, could that be absolutely transformed by going to an empty room and you actually being able to walk around the model of this either with a headset or an iPad or smartphone like? Absolutely. And so there aren’t a lot of barriers to doing that today. So I think we’re just going to start to see more of an uptick in that and then it’ll start cascading into some of these more ready player one sort of universes.
Ashley Coates [00:17:38] Yeah, that’s fascinating. Well, so aside from 3D, are there any emerging technologies used in retail that are really getting your attention these days?
Ned Hayes [00:17:47] And it’s like you’re living and breathing 3D all the time.
Ben Conway [00:17:50] That’s really it. It’s living and breathing 3D all the time and kind of trying to figure out what’s real, what’s not real, what’s something that’s going to be actionable, and how far forward do we actually need to be looking? I don’t know that I have a good answer for like other 3D technology or other that’s I added other 3D technologies. I don’t know much other stuff. It’s all 3D all the time for me.
Ned Hayes [00:18:14] Right. Right. Well, I know one technology that we’ve seen really, really rising a lot during the pandemic is loyalty based. Technology is to keep customers coming back. So since you are a 3D expert, do you see any way that 3D builds loyalty or builds customer engagement?
Ben Conway [00:18:30] I think it allows them to create a lot more of the experiences that are way more easily accessible than they previously were. So I have a strong background in events because we’re doing location based experiences and a lot of the events were brand activations that were for loyal customers experience. The marketing was growing tremendously, and so when the pandemic hit, everyone’s like, Oh, how do we do a virtual experience? And so 3D absolutely allows you to do that. There are some people that are incorporated and Estes into it and trying to make some sort of exclusivity around the experience. Maybe that works, maybe it doesn’t. Be honest, I’m not particularly bullish on NFT is being used in this way by brands, but I do think that 3D and digital twins of their products allows them to create brand centric experiences. It can be very meaningful for customers. And that’s why you’re seeing brands like Gucci go heavily into Roblox because they get that idea of Here’s a community, your customers care, something that we can provide that’s very much in line with our values as a brand. And 3D enables you to do that and then distribute it out to millions of people or a select group of people if you want. But no one has to get on a plane to participate in it.
Ned Hayes [00:19:36] Absolutely. Yeah. Well, we have a connection to Roblox because one of our founders is actually one of the early people at Roblox as well. It’s a fascinating space to see those kind of media universes expand. And as you said, as we move from just kind of bespoke solutions into solutions that can scale, I think the world is your oyster. So I’ll ask you that as kind of an entry point. Where are we going in 5 to 10 years with 3D, especially 3D and retail?
Ben Conway [00:20:01] That’s super good question. In some ways, probably further than you think. In other ways, not nearly as far as there’s a lot of adoption that still needs to happen. I think one of the biggest, if you ask people in the industry, what are some of the biggest problems that you’re going to have with the metaverse? Right. And depending on how you define that, let’s take a non hardware based, headset based version that might be on desktop or mobile or something like that. Like how do you build these metaverse? AS And one of the single biggest barriers to doing that is content and content creation. Do we have the content in 3D to do this? It is a massive problem for these brands. And so once they are able to like solve that, it’s going to start to unlock a lot of potential opportunities. I think you’re going to see more stuff like what’s happening in Roblox that’s kind of community centric and in the same way that people dress differently, to go out with different groups of friends happens all the time. Depending on the audience that you’re with, you might have a different sort of wardrobe, so I think we might see some more of that happening. What are some other things that might be happening in retail? I think we’ll see more on the configuration side. I think we’ll see our try on. That’s actually good. I think there’ll be someone who comes up with innovative solution for virtual fitting. There’s a lot of people that are working on that right now, but the questions around that are it’s hard. It’s really it’s difficult because a lot of the solutions out there have kind of been based on your phone and recording yourself and no one really wants to get naked in front of the cameras and then the scanner themselves up to someone else and be like, Oh yeah, it’s worth it to.
Ned Hayes [00:21:31] See if this.
Ben Conway [00:21:32] T-shirt fit. They’re like, I’ll take that, I’ll return it. But I think there’s going to be some sort of solution that comes out that makes people feel comfortable and might even be able to store based solution, which we’re also seeing some of like, Hey, maybe I go to Nordstrom’s once and I get my body scanned and then it’s done and now that lives and that’s my identity there. And then that can be shared across other places. So there’s a huge opportunity in doing that. So I think we’ll see a lot of practical stuff. I am not the person to ask on what all of the future unlimited potential of this technology in the metaverse and where it can go. I think I’m too much of a pragmatist at heart for that. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a future for it. It’s just that I get preoccupied with what’s going to be in front of us in the next 2 to 3 years. What are the problems we need to solve to just kind of keep moving the ball forward, keep moving it down the field? Because I think it’s a blocker today. I think a place where brands get stuck is analysis paralysis of. There are so many options. But if we make a misstep now, are we going to be able to have access to this technology that’s coming down the pipe five years from now or ten years from now or whatever else? There’s all this stuff. And I think it’s problematic because there’s practical steps they can take today to take advantage of 3D and augmented reality that will prepare them for what’s coming down the road. But instead they might opt to do nothing or try and go for the most extreme example that requires a lot of heavy lifting on their part that then ultimately doesn’t play out the way they want it to. Like you take a place like Decentraland that has 998 daily active users. That stat just came out. That is not a lot of daily active users. Roblox has something like That’s hundreds of millions.
Ned Hayes [00:23:09] Yeah, it does.
Ben Conway [00:23:10] It’s crazy. So I don’t know. I just think that practicality might win out on some of the stuff and will ultimately it evolve into all sorts of other things that we hadn’t thought about before. But like, I don’t know, tick tock, maybe someone I can read tick tock. But like certainly we’ve had video on social media for a long time. It’s just a new format and way to digest it. I mean, Roblox as well is another great example of similar sorts of experiences have been around, but this really had a focus on community and the users and they understood that and it just kind of grew and grew and grew until it hit that inflection point and it is what it is today, but I think we’ll see more of that. I don’t think that it just happens overnight.
Ashley Coates [00:23:46] Well, thank you so much, Ben, for joining us. This has been such a fascinating conversation. We do have one last question for you, which is what would you like your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for.
Ben Conway [00:23:58] From a founder perspective? I would say that I would like to be remembered as someone who was honest in the way they presented the company, the capabilities and the value they were delivering to clients and that people like to work with me. I mean, that’s it. I think that’s what it comes down to for me. I don’t think I need to change the world. I think that if you can deliver real value to your customers in an authentic way, that will resonate with them and the rest will happen of its own accord.
Ned Hayes [00:24:27] Thank you for being with us, Ben.
Ben Conway [00:24:29] Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Ned Hayes [00:24:32] Sparkplug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content and copyright 2021 Sparkplug Media.