3-D Body Scanners in Stores Can Help You Find Apparel in Your True Size

A new IEEE Standards Association initiative is working on standardizing these machines

6 July 2016

Clothes come in predetermined shapes and sizes. People don’t. Unless your clothes are custom-made, you need to know not only your dress size or pants length but also who makes clothing in your nominal size that actually matches your body shape—and you might need alterations even then.

A 3-D body scanner can take detailed measurements of your body in seconds, and computer programs then can determine which clothes fit you best, and even let you see how they’ll look on you. And in a few places this is being done. But the main reason you don’t usually shop for clothes this way is that those scanners and that software often can’t communicate with one another.

That’s why the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA), under the auspices of its Industry Connections Program, recently formed the 3-D Body Processing initiative. It’s composed of stakeholders from technology companies, clothing retailers, research organizations, and standards development groups to devise standards for the capture, processing, and use of 3-D body images. They include Body Labs, Browzwear, Gerber Technology, Intel, and Size Stream.

 “We’re trying to tease out the technical issues,”says Rudi Schubert, director of new initiatives for IEEE-SA, in Piscataway, N.J. “From a computer engineering standpoint, how do you do 3-D modeling so everyone’s is consistent? How do you transfer your data so someone else can use it?”

Those are just some of the issues the group plans to tackle, along with security, privacy, metrics, communications and sharing protocols, and methods for assessing results.

BENEFITS

Once standards ensure hardware and software compatibility, 3-D body scanners can make it easier for shoppers to buy clothing that fits and looks good on their body. They’ll even be able to gauge the fit of apparel that has been designed but not yet manufactured. Retailers could increase their customers’ satisfaction, because, the thinking goes, less time would be spent in dressing and fitting rooms. Returns—a problem for all retailers but especially online ones—are certain to decrease.

Aggregated data from large numbers of consumers could help manufacturers make clothes likely to fit more people. And the designers and makers of scanners and the systems that use that scanned data can benefit from broader markets, buoyed by confidence that the hardware and software bought by clothing designers, manufacturers, and retailers will all work together.

Body scanners can also simulate motion and its effects on body shape, such as showing how the foot changes as a person runs, or what motions a firefighter’s protective gear must be tailored to allow. They also provide deeper knowledge of body shapes and how they change when people move. That can improve design and ergonomics, such as altering the selection and positioning of bicycle seats and handlebars.

Other uses aren’t just for product design. Tracking how the body changes over time could help gauge fitness, and results could be analyzed to identify health risks based on body shape and weight distribution.

Even online games could benefit, letting players create avatars that look more like themselves.

A BETTER FIT

Technology that helps customers buy better-fitting clothes not only would make their shopping easier but would also save the clothing industry money. According to the IHL Group, a research firm specializing in the retail and hospitality industries, more than US $62 billion worth of apparel and footwear purchases were returned last year around the globe because of poor fit. And it’s difficult to calculate how many sales are lost because customers simply stopped shopping for clothes altogether.

Costs, an obstacle to body scanning, are dropping. David Bruner, a member of the industry connections program and vice president of Size Stream, in Cary, N.C, says that 20 years ago a state-of-the art machine cost $500,000 and filled a large room. “Today, Size Stream makes a super accurate 3-D body scanner that fits in a retailer’s changing booth and costs $15,000,” Bruner says. “A lot of our customers are mom-and-pop operations with a single scanner in a tailor shop or dress shop. You can now measure someone more cheaply with a machine than with a tailor.”

Less expensive body scanners are beginning to appear as well, such as devices that work with smartphone apps, or apps that work with scanner-equipped tablets. They could be used by even the smallest retailers. Once compatibility standards are in place, people could even buy them for home use, then carry their scans from store to store on thumb drives, email them to online retailers, or enable retailers of their choice to access them from the cloud. But so far, Bruner says, such technology is mainly being used for custom apparel, by Acustom, Alton Lane, Brooks Brothers, and other companies.

“More progressive manufacturers see 3-D body data as a way to better engage with customers of different sizes and shapes, from different countries, and with different needs,” says IEEE Member Luciano Oviedo, who chairs the initiative. “This feedback can give them ideas for new designs or fabrics.”

Body scans also would open up opportunities for “immersive shopping,” whereby customers could use virtual reality to see how clothes look on avatars that resemble them and move as they do. Manufacturers could use such virtual shopping to assess customer acceptance of designs before mass-producing them.

“What this standard will do for immersive shopping,” Bruner says, ”is supply a seamless link between those who provide body data and those who provide virtual fashion designs that interact with that data.”

 “Standardization will further accelerate adoption of this technology,” says IEEE Senior Member Sharon Lim, who is taking part in the initiative. She is cofounder and managing director of Browzwear, a 3-D fashion design software company in Singapore. “Although these technologies came to market about 20 years ago, I’d guess that less than 10 percent of the global apparel industry uses them. We’re only now reaching a tipping point.”

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