Would you get nearly naked before your computer in search of a better-fitting dress or the perfect pair of jeans? A British company is hoping to convince millions of us to do just that — scan our bodies for commerce.
The next time you walk into a dressing room at a department store, there is a very slim chance you could hear a British woman's voice issuing from a gleaming white pod telling you to be still, "Your scan is about to start."
Tania Fauvel works for Bodymetrics, a company that scans people's bodies in the name of fashion. "From their body scans we create a 3-D model, and from that we can actually try on clothing to see how it fits online," she said.
Bodymetrics installs those gleaming white pods in dressing rooms. They're equipped with lasers or special cameras. The pods create detailed digital 3-D models of your body. The company has plans to put a pod in the U.S. this month. Right now there's one in Selfridges, a department store in London.
"The customers would come here. They would get undressed to their underwear," explained Suran Goonatilake, CEO of Bodymetrics. "And it takes about five seconds and we get hundreds of measurements."
Right now, the pod just delivers suggestions of jeans that are likely to fit you. Eventually, Bodymetrics wants to be able to display what those jeans would look like on you — digitally.
"This isn't the first time that we've seen technology where the idea is to match clothes to some 3-D rendering of an image," said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester.
She says pods like this have been around for at least a decade, and often they are little more than a marketing gimmick. What makes this moment special is that this technology may be on the verge of leaping out of high-tech pods in department store dressing rooms into our living rooms.
The same cameras Bodymetrics uses in its high-tech scanning pod are also built into the Kinect — Microsoft's hands-free video game controller. These sensors are already in more than 20 million homes worldwide.
Mulpuru says the real holy grail for companies like Bodymetrics is to let you scan your body at home. After all, in a store, you can actually try on the jeans and see if they fit, but when you are shopping online at home, that's not possible.
"Return rates in online retail have between a 20- and 30-percent rate," Mulpuru said. "If they could cut that in half, that would be very lucrative and it would be less frustrating for the customer."
But teaching computers to see and model the real world in three dimensions won't just change fitting rooms or online retail. It could transform everything from surgery to architecture. It could create computers that watch us and model the world or even help us navigate it.
David Kim, a Microsoft researcher in Cambridge, U.K., wants to use the Microsoft Kinect to build computers that observe us — watch us, maybe without us even realizing. "The computer will just pick up my context — it will know what I am intending to do," he said.
Right now, he's using the Kinect to model humans and their environment.
A few months ago, Kim showed me a project Microsoft calls KinectFusion. He picked up a regular Kinect sensor. And as a colleague of his explained what he was doing, Kim walked around holding the Kinect.
On a television screen, I could see the device building a detailed 3-D model of the room — and everything in it, including me. It captured everything down to the shape of my ears and the wrinkles on my shirt.
Then David pressed a button, and suddenly thousands of virtual balls shot at my 3-D image on the screen. The balls were not real — they were just pixels on the screen programmed to behave like balls. And they did. They bounced off my head, rolled off the surface of the table, collected in the bottom of a coffee mug.
Dozens of companies, including Bodymetrics, want to use the same technology to drape your body — not with balls in a video game, but with virtual clothes online.
Tania Fauvel of Bodymetrics is convinced this will soon transform how millions of us shop. But I can't help wondering if people are really ready to stand in front of their computers or a Kinect naked.
Fauvel said it isn't necessary to bare it all. "So long as you are wearing tight-fitting clothing, that's fine," she said.
But capturing embarrassingly accurate images of your body — as awkward as it may be — is just the first step in creating a digital dressing room that really works.
The second may be more complicated: creating digital models of clothes.
"It is very difficult to model cloth in three dimensions," says Susan Ashdown, a professor at Cornell University who studies body mapping and the clothing industry. She says a silk blouse and cotton blouse with the exact same cut will behave differently when you try them on. A digital dressing room will have to account for that.
"When you take the whole range of human sizes, shapes and postures and the whole wide variety of types of cloth and how they interact on the body, it's mind-boggling," she says.
But computer-aided design is beginning to get there.
Julia Shaw at OptiTex creates digital models of clothes for department stores like Target and Kohl's. These computer designs let stores create or tweak new styles without actually stitching prototype garments.
OptiTex can model these digital garments on images of human bodies to illustrate what the clothes would look like.
"You can type in and customize the models to meet anybody's personal body specifications," Shaw said.
But doing this live online — with real people — would require a huge amount of computing power.
"It's cutting edge," Shaw said. "We are still on the cusp of having enough computing power to make this work online live."
Shaw believes all the pieces are coming together, but to make it really work would it require server farms in the cloud powered by the same graphics chips that are now used to run some of the world's fastest supercomputers.
And that's a pretty big investment for any clothing company to make just to help you find the perfect pair of jeans.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, the intersection of technology and fashion. For those of us always on the hunt for a better fitting pair of pants or a more flattering dress, a British company thinks it has the answer: body scanning in the privacy of your own home. NPR's Steve Henn explains.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The next time you walk into a dressing room at a department store, there is a very slim chance you could hear this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your scan is about to start. Please be still.
HENN: One of really fun things about living in Silicon Valley is occasionally you just run into people who have kind of crazy ideas about how they want to change the world and are determined to try to make them work.
Last month, I was at the Stanford Mall with a mic and completely by accident bumped into woman named Tania Fauvel.
TANIA FAUVEL: I came from a company called Bodymetrics where we scan people's bodies. And from their body scans, we create a 3D model. And from that, we can actually try on clothing to see how it fits online.
HENN: Bodymetrics installs these pods in dressing rooms. They're equipped with lasers or special cameras. The pods create detailed digital 3D models of your body. The company has plans to put a pod in the U.S. this month. Right now, one is in Selfridges, a department store in London.
SURAN GOONATILAKE: The customers would come here. They would get undressed to their underwear. They would go into the scanner here - obviously, everything is closed.
HENN: Suran Goonatilake is the CEO.
GOONATILAKE: It takes about five seconds and we get about hundreds of measurements and hopefully we'll find a jean that fits you perfectly.
HENN: Right now, the pod just delivers suggestions of jeans that are likely to fit you. Eventually, though, Bodymetrics wants to be able to display what those jeans would look like on you digitally. Sucharita Mulpuru is a retail analyst at Forrester.
SUCHARITA MULPURU: This isn't the first time that we have seen technology that, you know, the idea is to try to match clothes to some 3D rendering of an image.
HENN: She says the real Holy Grail for companies like Bodymetrics is to let you scan your body at home. After all, in a store, you can actually try on the jeans and see if they fit. But when you're shopping online at home, that's not possible.
MULPURU: Return rates in online retail have between a 20 and 30 percent rate. And if they could, you know, cut that in half, that would be very lucrative for the retailer, and it would be less frustrating for the customer.
HENN: But teaching computers to see and model the real world in three dimensions won't just change fitting rooms or online retail. It could transform everything from surgery to architecture. It could create computers that watch us and model the world. David Kim is a Microsoft researcher in Cambridge.
DAVID KIM: I'm interested in interfaces which are hidden away.
HENN: He wants to use the Microsoft Kinect, the company's videogame controller that uses 3D cameras, to build computers that observe us, watch us maybe without us even realizing.
KIM: The computer will just pick up my context. It will know what I'm intending to do.
HENN: Right now, he's using the Kinect to model humans and their environment. David shows off a project Microsoft calls Kinect Fusions.
STEVE CLAYTON: So what we're seeing right now is David is holding up just a regular Kinect sensor. We're studying...
HENN: Steve Clayton is at Microsoft. And as Steve talks, David walks around the room holding the Kinect. On a television screen, I can see the machine building a detailed 3D model of the room and everything in it, including me. It captures everything down to the shape of my ears and the wrinkles on my shirt.
CLAYTON: And then we can also do some different things. We can start to introduce other objects into the scene.
HENN: These objects aren't real. They're purely digital. David presses a button, and suddenly, thousands of virtual balls shoot at my 3D image on the screen.
CLAYTON: And you'll see that those balls literally drip across our surfaces. So it recognizes that this isn't just a static video of 2D images. It literally is a 3D model.
HENN: And Kinect's cameras are the very same cameras that are built into Bodymetrics scanning pod. You could use this kind of modeling in hundreds, maybe thousands of ways. But back at the Stanford Mall, Tania Fauvel from Bodymetrics wants to use it to drape your body not with balls in a videogame, but with virtual clothes online.
OK. So when people hear about your technology, I think the crucial consumer question is: Do you have to stand in front of your Kinect naked?
FAUVEL: You - so long as you're wearing tight-fitting clothing, that's fine. We do a lot of demonstrations with just like gym gear.
HENN: Fauvel is convinced this could transform how millions of us shop. But capturing painfully accurate images of your body, turns out, that may be the easy part.
SUSAN ASHDOWN: It is very difficult to model a cloth in three dimensions.
HENN: Susan Ashdown studies body mapping and the clothing industry at Cornell University.
ASHDOWN: When you take the whole range of human sizes, shapes, postures and the whole wide variety of types of cloth and how they interact on the body...
HENN: It's mindboggling how complicated a digital dressing room actually is to create. So Ashdown says this vision of an all-seeing computer that helps you find the perfect pair of jeans may have to wait a few more years. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.