The Future of Shopping: An Avatar Lets You Find the Perfect Fit

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 19 2012 11:21 AM

The Future of Shopping: An Avatar Lets You Find the Perfect Fit

A Me-Ality body scanner at the North Point Mall in Georgia
A Me-Ality body scanner at the North Point Mall in Georgia

Photograph courtesy Unique Solutions.

For anyone who loathes trying on clothes, there are no good options. The fitting room can seem like a torture chamber—harsh lighting, the walk past other customers to the three-way mirror. Online, you can avoid the horror of asking the sales person to bring you a bigger size, but you may end up returning four out of five items because nothing fits properly.

Farhad Manjoo recently wrote in Slate that Amazon’s move to same-day shipping may doom physical retailers. But another technology could hasten the demise of clothing stores in particular: body scanners, like the one I saw recently in Seoul’s T.um Museum, which is dedicated to futuristic technology. Pairing customized avatars with technology similar to that in some airport security scanners, the machine could make the process of trying on clothes obsolete.

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The Me-Ality machine, made by a North American company called Unique Solutions and modified in Korea, runs radio waves over a fully clothed person who is scanned standing up. The radio waves send and receive power signals that reflect off the water molecules in the skin, picking up more than 200,000 points of measurement. From these, the machine creates a 3-D image, then extracts more than 100 measurements, according to Bob Kutnick, the company’s chief technology officer—not just the circumference of your waist but the gradation from your knee to your ankle, for example.

Currently found in common areas of about 70 malls in the United States, the Me-Ality is free for shoppers to use. After a 10-second scan, software compares the individual’s measurements to those provided by partner manufacturers and then recommends items that are guaranteed to fit: Old Navy’s Sweetheart style jeans in a size 10, say. The clothes it recommends are all (of course) available in shops at the mall, so customers can stroll in and pick them up, or head home and order online.

While knowing which mass-produced clothes fit you right now is a convenient time-saver, the scanner’s true potential lies in perfectly tailored clothes for everyone, and the extinction of size eights and size 12s. Ordering well-tailored clothes online is certainly possible, as Manjoo has written, but it still involves taking your own measurements, a visit from a consultant, or mailing the company a piece of clothing you already own. These are time-consuming, and even a thorough shopper won’t be able to take as many measurements as the body scanner does.

Visualization is, of course, an integral part of the process—consumers want to see how their clothes will look on them before they buy. In the technology museum, a program created an avatar that bore a remarkable resemblance to the man scanned. His digital doppelganger tried on different items of clothing and told him how they fit (“a little tight in the thighs”). He could even make the avatar walk up and down a virtual runway to see how the clothes looked in motion.

Body scanning also has tremendous potential to lower prices—for consumers and manufacturers. In the short term, returns will drop sharply, and data from the body scanners will allow shops to stock more of the sizes found in their locality. In the long run, consumers will finally stop visiting clothing stores in person—a huge savings in overhead for manufacturers. And when you take returns out of the equation, costs go down even more.

Gimmicks meant to make shopping easier, from doorstop-sized catalogs to X-ray machines that showed how well your shoes fit, have come and gone. There are lots of variations on the avatar idea popping up these days, from using the sensors on a Microsoft Kinect to submitting photos to websites. But while these might seem attractive, they’re just stopgap measures on the way to the ultimate goal—infallible fit with minimal effort. The possibilities for body scanning are nearly limitless, whether it’s used to make online clothes shopping work efficiently or to create one-of-a-kind apparel. Kutnick told me that the technology even exists to infuse man-made fabrics with dye in real time using radio waves. One day, quite soon, we’ll be able to pick the exact colors we want—matching our shirts to our eyes, for example—and machines will produce them on request, making clothing that’s truly customized. For now, though, most consumers would probably settle for clothes that fit—minus the fitting room.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Nell McShane Wulfhart writes about news and travel in Asia. She lives in Seoul.

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