3D Technology Steps into the Spotlight

From facial payment kiosks to immersive in-store customer engagement, 3D is having a moment. A look at the present and future of 3D in retail.

When many people hear the term “3D,” they still think of movie theaters and funny glasses, or perhaps VR headsets. But today’s 3D technology is more about what is recognized than what is shown. 

For retailers in particular, that critical difference will soon transform the way stores operate, sell and compete.

Thanks to miniaturization, as well as the maturation of related technologies, 3D has taken a quantum leap. Soon it will improve everything from payment systems to merchandising, inventory control and customer service

When combined with AI and machine learning, the possibilities expand even more, giving merchants new opportunities to interpret shopper behavior and optimize in-store operations.

Three factors have impacted innovation in 3D cameras, the core of the 3D revolution:

  • Affordability: Structured light-based 3D devices are less expensive than other forms of depth-calculating solutions. In most cases they can be integrated for about the cost of a good 2D camera.
  • Versatility: 3D cameras can now instantly and accurately recognize objects, environments and even individuals, making them hugely valuable for data analytics, payments, store operations and many other retail applications.
  • Creativity: When combined with related software, 3D can provide new forms of virtual retail experiences that compel, inform and inspire.

The ability to recognize faces, shelves, products and store layouts gives devices and automated systems a whole new range of capabilities, from the front door to the stockroom:


Checkout is one of the most promising areas for 3D technology. 3D item recognition is actually faster and more accurate than barcode scanning because it can recognize shapes. It’s uniquely practical for non-packaged items — in cafeterias, for example, 3D scanners can recognize and price salads, bakery and dinner plates — and can handle multiple items at once. 

Studies show that 3D scanning is up to 10 times faster than barcode, with items rung up in just one second.


Payments can be completed quickly using 3D facial recognition. Personal privacy is ensured because the customer’s face is matched to the payment account via encrypted algorithm, in the same way as passwords, swipe cards or other biometrics. 

Facial recognition is already the norm at checkouts in China and is spreading around the world due to is many secure advantages for customers and retailers alike.

Sales and merchandising 

Sales and merchandising benefit from new ways to convey information and increase customer interest. The ability to recognize customer movement and body language is sparking immersive experiences for retailers in everything from fashion to electronics and automobile showrooms. 

Physical body scans, another use for 3D, allow customers to try on clothing virtually, without entering a dressing room.

Shelf management 

Shelf management improves when shelf-mounted 3D cameras make traffic counts and analyze foot traffic patterns. Global companies have even developed robots that move through the store autonomously, taking inventory and assisting with shelf replenishment.

There was a time when a single “killer app” was enough to popularize any new technology. In retail, 3D doesn’t have just one killer app — it has dozens. From fresh ways to delight shoppers, to strategies that improve margins and productivity, 3D is a powerful new dimension that will soon become essential to retailing.

David Chen is co-founder and director of engineering at Orbbec 3D Technology International.