Media & Marketing

Real or Rendered? How 3D Imagery Is Changing the Way You Shop

"Charger Pursuit," rendered by Midcoast for Union AdWorks

The next time you shop for a vehicle, flip through a furniture catalog, or look at clothing online, the images you see may not be photography, but rather a collection of pixels assembled by an artist on a computer screen.

In August, the Wall Street Journal highlighted IKEA’s efforts to shift 25 percent of catalog illustrations from traditional photography to computer-generated imagery by 2013. The savings could be staggering: IKEA will print 208 million copies of its 324-page catalog this year. In one of Europe’s largest studios, 285 employees work year-round creating and photographing the room sets that make up the book. Altogether, the costs associated with this endeavor make up two-thirds of IKEA’s entire marketing budget.

What compels a successful global brand to radically change the way it markets its products?

When it comes to product marketing, computer-generated imagery is game-changing. Yet the Journal article gave the public a rare view into this booming business that is expected to surpass $1.5 billion in sales globally by 2015. IKEA is just one in a long list of companies realizing the benefits that computer-generated imagery can bring both creatively and economically.

The auto industry was an early adopter in this new discipline. For nearly a decade, companies such as Detroit-based Midcoast Studio have provided CGI, as it is known to insiders, to major automakers. In 2005, Jay Dunstan helped the well-established photography studio expand into 3D image services after seeing a growing demand in mainstream advertising. Today, Dunstan is Midcoast’s director of digital services. “Ten years ago, about 20 percent of automotive advertising was created digitally, and 80 percent was produced via traditional photography. Now those numbers have flipped,” he says.

Midcoast employs about 30 digital artists who create photo-realistic images of kitchens, cars, motorcycles, boats, and other products. Dunstan highlights some of the creative and cost benefits of working in CGI:

• Extending the boundaries of what is real: You’re photographing a vehicle against a brick wall that isn’t long enough? No problem. Our digital artists can recreate the landscape to your liking.

• No geographic restrictions: A photo shoot of a vehicle against a mountain backdrop can prove costly. Today, we can send one photographer to any location to photograph the landscape and capture lighting for that environment, and then back in our studio digitally place a vehicle within that setting. Often the vehicle we are inserting has itself been created via CAD data.

• Weather delays are a thing of the past: If you’re unhappy with how the sky looks in your ad, we’ll swap it for one with more (or fewer) clouds. We can add rain or snow, or bring in sunlight on request.

• No need to wait for the expensive prototype: A car company can advertise a concept car without actually having to make it, which can cost millions.

While much of the studio’s business is focused on catalog and print work to help companies realize cost savings, Midcoast is exploring other applications for its 3D work. Growth areas include:

• Helping companies bring a product to market pre-manufacture. An industry publication highlighted the realism of a recent project Midcoast delivered to a prominent clothing manufacturer. The company wanted to feature a yet-to-be-made jacket in its Fall catalog. The photorealistic jacket that Midcoast produced in under a week appeared in the catalog alongside the photographed product line.

Augmented reality: A collaborative project used photorealistic renders to create a 2013 Dodge Dart mobile app that enables consumers to use a rendered image of the Dart on their iPhone camera screen to photograph the car in their own garage, driveway, or even on their desk.

It may not be reality, but it sells.

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13 Responses to “Real or Rendered? How 3D Imagery Is Changing the Way You Shop”

  1. Frans says:

    So it will be increasingly dificult to know what is real and what is created with computers in: magazines, movies, television, . . .
    I’m sorry: I like reality.

    • Hi, Frans! Thanks for the comment. The reality is, this has been in play for over a decade and no one has noticed. It’s more than ‘difficult’ to know what is real vs. what is rendered, the point is that one is indistinguishable from the other. 🙂 An interesting tidbit from the article on IKEA: they were reportedly skeptical of the practice itself, and placed one rendered chair in their catalog, anticipating some (illusory) negative feedback. The end result was that no one noticed.

      And after all, what is a photograph other than the artist’s vision of it’s subject? Here it is much the same: a digital artist’s interpretation of an object…

  2. Timothy says:

    Digital enhancement and even CGI for exotic/fantasy shots is perfectly fine. What bothers me is when it’s not clear if it’s real or not. Everybody knows “professional driver on a closed course.” Is it time for “images are not actual product?” It doesn’t seem ethical to fool the customer into believing they are seeing real photographs of a physical object when it is in fact just a computer rendering.

    • So, as long as its capturing a mythical creature that OBVIOUSLY cannot be real, it’s permissible to use this art form?
      An interesting thought, Timothy, but seems short sighted…

      • Jacques says:

        It is unethical. Btw friends, they will do what they want. Most people are too stupid to know the difference. Its up to US (you and me) to tell them the truth, because the people that don’t care the ones who has “The father of lies” as their father. Ooo, I hope I hit that one right.

    • ErzengelDesLichtes says:

      Even with real photography, advertising companies rarely show the actual product. Do you think that’s actual ice cream you’re seeing in commercials? It’s not, as Ice Cream cannot survive in the hot lights. The lettuce and other veggies showing in burger commercials? Fake, they’d wilt under the lights.
      CGI really seems no different.

  3. Ron says:

    The problem with this concept is companies have a tendency to go a little to far. Take the many Ads for cell phones that show unrealistic screen response time for data downloads, or the little girl creating a movie about her flying, she would need about 10K in hardware and software to produce what was shown as ‘Her Movie’. Give me a break already. I think if CGI or even Photoshop is used it should have to be noted in the AD. What erver happened to the truth in advertising law?

  4. chaiguy says:

    Very cool to see 3D rendering approaching the point where it’s indiscernible from a real photo. But please make that image link to a full size picture. A 610×251 image is not a good indicator of anything.

  5. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    Welcome to the Ministry of Truth.

  6. Mike B says:

    Interesting. And at the same time, Kickstarter is requiring real photos of the current state of the physical product instead of renderings what it will look like, and what it can do, when it is done.

  7. Very cool to see 3D rendering approaching the point where it’s indiscernible from a real photo

    nice to see

  8. michel317 says:


    3d approach is very good

  9. Andy Kim says:

    Our app, IKEA NOW, is probably the most practical use of augmented reality (oh and we’re not sponsored by them) http://www.businessinsider.com/ikea-now-could-change-furniture-shopping-2012-10


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