It’s hard enough to find a good pair of jeans at the mall, but at least fitting room-weary customers know they’re bringing home the right size.
Customers who prefer the convenience of online shopping risk buying pants off of the Internet with the hope they’ll sit properly around the waist.
Factor in the annoyance of having to ship those ill-fitting pants back to sender and it’s easy to see why online clothing sales have yet to take a bigger chunk of the e-commerce pie: Less than 10 per cent of apparel sales occur online, and within that small margin, billions are spent each year just dealing with the hassle of returns.
Jenny Tcharnaia and her parents saw an opportunity in the gap. The seasoned e-commerce entrepreneurs from Toronto recently took a $500,000 prize at Buffalo’s 43North competition for their virtual fitting room startup, TriMirror Inc., a technology that allows users to create a dynamic avatar tailored to their exact measurements and body type.
Once users plug in up to 30 different body measurements, the avatar is able to interact with the clothes available on the TriMirror database, whether it means rolling up sleeves, fiddling with buttons, or moving their avatar around to see how the item pulls, stretches, or drapes on the body.
“Real-time cloth simulation is what separates us from everyone at the core of it,” Ms. Tcharnaia says from Buffalo, where she has set up an American outpost of her company as a condition of the award.
“What it means is we take the garment design from the designer, or we get the physical garment, and then we reverse engineer the design out of that. Then we apply all the physical properties, put it on your avatar and simulate it in real time. Our computer is constantly calculating how that fabric is behaving based on its measurements, fabric properties, your own measurements, and how you’re moving. It’s not static.”
Virtual fitting rooms haven’t proved particularly successful in the past, and Ms. Tcharnaia says she understands why.
“It’s actually very simple. One, the technology hasn’t been accurate enough and two, it has to also be visual and beautiful and entertaining so it’s not a boring tool. The user experience has to be fun.”
The trio invested $2-million in seed money from the sale of their previous startups, and hired a team of 3-D gaming and animation experts to make sure they were improving on the lacklustre technology that has given virtual fitting rooms a bad rap.
In 2012, they raised another $1-million from angel investors and a grant from the Canadian Media Fund which allowed them to build an interactive website, launched in August 2013, that offers anyone with a computer the chance to play around with the technology.
Currently, Ms. Tcharnaia is fostering relationships with shopping malls and retail outlets in New York to set up body scanners in-house. The idea is to allow for the most accurate avatar possible, but also provide a marketing draw for local shoppers.
“Some retailers are afraid that some customers will be too lazy or too shy to put in all their measurements so they say, ‘OK, just give them a default avatar with different body shapes to choose from,’” she says. “But in our experience, people love getting their avatars made. Whenever I’ve done events people spend as much time as they can getting measured.”
Once multiple brands are on board, shoppers will be able to select from thousands of clothing options across a platform of stores in the mall. A Connex camera will track the shopper’s movement through the store and suggest items based on size charts that may work best with the person’s individual style and body type.
Ms. Tcharnaia also hopes brands will use the technology to avoid the costly and wasteful hassle of their designers having to ship samples back and forth from China multiple times to get the item right.
At the moment, the team is working to adapt the technology across multiple platforms, like mobile and tablet units. While virtual fitting rooms won’t ever replace the physical shopping experience, it’s a step toward improving the retail options that have still eluded a successful transition to the online world.