Making 3D models interactive in the web

When I first saw and played about with Sketchfab a few years ago I was incredibly impressed with what I saw. 3D models in the browser wasn’t something that was really seen at that time and they’ve come a long way since then. I’ve managed to get an interview with Alban Denoyel the Co-founder & CEO.

1) For the benefit of those who have never heard of Sketchfab before could you give a brief explanation of it and what features it has?

Sketchfab is the place to be for 3D files: a platform to publish, share and embed interactive 3D content, anywhere online. You can think of it like YouTube or SoundCloud, but for 3D designers. We take 28 native 3D formats, as well as most materials and textures (normal maps, specular, diffuse, multi materials, transparency etc…) and display them in real-time without plugin. Our 3D viewer can be embedded on any web page, as easily as a youtube video.

2) Tell me a bit about the beginnings of Sketchfab, who started it and where you are based?

The project started 3 years ago, back in 2011 with the arrival of WebGL, a standard initiated by Mozilla to display 3D graphics in a web browser. Our CTO Cédric was one of the very first 3D programers to work with WebGL, and was commissioned by Mozilla to do the first demo for the launch of Firefox 4. At the time he was a freelancer in the video game industry, working every day with 3D artists who had no good solution to share and showcase their work. So he started working on an easy tool to let anyone publish any 3D model online, and that’s how it all got started. I have more of a business background. I do sculpture as a hobby, that’s how I got into 3D, and finally met Cédric in January 2012. We quickly decided to team up and start a business on top of the early prototype Cédric had built. Sketchfab was officially launched in April 2012, and Pierre-Antoine our CPO joined us in September 2012. We are now a team of 15 people with offices in Paris and New York; and we also work with various freelancers and contributors worldwide.

3) What technologies do you use to allow 3D models to become interactive in the browser, and how did you manage to succeed where others failed?

We use WebGL and HTML5. We built our own WebGL framework. I think success is an ongoing quest, and I won’t go as far as saying that “we succeeded”, but we took the bet on WebGL early on, believing it would become a standard, which wasn’t the case at the time, but clearly is now. The last missing piece was iOS support and it’s coming with iOS 8. We also made sure to keep the workflow and interface as simple as possible, to make it easy to upload, and remove friction. We integrated with 3D creations tools, to let artists publish directly from their favourite tools to Sketchfab.

4) What was the response from the industry when you first launched?

Just a few days after the launch, we were featured on and our servers crashed. Within 3 weeks we had a thousand users. Most people discovering the platform couldn’t believe it. Many people were (and some are still) thinking this wasn’t going to work with their own files, that we wouldn’t be able to handle textures or high poly count etc… But just give it a try and you’ll see.

image showing how Sketchfab works with F1 3d model

5) How did you feel after raising $2M in funding and how has it changed the company?

I felt relieved, because fundraising is hard, and above all because it meant we were now able to keep building Sketchfab with a stronger team. I also felt stressed because every step you take comes with new expectations from your users, your investors, and the industry. It hasn’t changed the company that much, except that we are now able to grow the team as we need.

6) What new features to do plan to add to Sketchfab in the future?

We just released annotations, which was a big step for us, and really adds a new dimension to the viewer: you can now tell stories with your models! We also recently released VR support (Oculus, cardboard), and are working on improving it. We’ll also announce new features at the Siggraph mid August, stay tuned.

7) I noticed you have a side project called Sculptfab, do you plan to continue working on that? Do you have any other side projects being worked on?

Sculptfab is a side project indeed, and we don’t have plans to develop it more on the short term. We have many side projects, we did a painting app based on sculptfab: the other ones are still secret for now.

Sketchfab Sculptfab Screenshot Sketchfab Eggpainter Screenshot

8) Finally – where do you see the future of the industry going? Can you foresee a future where modelling and sculpting software will run smoothly in the browser?

The future of the industry is a wide question. We don’t really see Sketchfab as part of “the industry” in the traditional sense of the 3D industry. Our goal is to bring 3D content to a new audience, and get it to be used outside of the 3D world. I do think we’ll have better browser based tools, but most professionals will stick to their desktop tools in the near future. If you look at photoshop and 2D editing tools: there are plenty of web based ones, but the installed versions are still more widely used.

Alban Denoyel