Traditionally, fashion designers have had to rely on flesh-and-blood models to understand what their clothes look like on the human body, and shoppers have been wary of ordering clothes online without the chance to try them on.
But earlier this month, New York startup Body Labs announced BodyHub—a cloud-based platform that converts 3-D body scans of real-life models and consumers into virtual avatars that can be posed, animated, and dressed in simulated outfits.
Body Labs licenses technology from Brown University and Germany’s Max Planck Institute and relies on data gleaned from thousands of body imaging sessions to turn laser scans from raw images into realistic digital models that behave like human bodies.
"You really don’t want a scan," Body Labs CEO William O’Farrell said in an interview. "You want to be able to take it and make it into a body—you want to be able to animate and pose it."
The company’s marketing its product first to apparel designers to use with fashion-oriented computer-aided design software.
"You can have all these fit models and have them in your computer rather than having them in to be draped and sampled and posed," O’Farrell said. Virtual models can be loaded into fashion CAD software, such as Browzwear and CLO3D, that already knows how to dress them and handle the physics of the clothing itself, he said.
"The texture stuff for us is actually quite straightforward," he said. "The hard part is getting the model."
Pose the avatar and the clothing will realistically bend; change its shape—height, weight, or inseam length, for instance—and the clothing’s dimensions will adjust too.
"As you change a body’s shape, we’re automatically regenerating a pattern," O’Farrell said.
Once consumer-grade body scanning hardware similar to Microsoft’s Kinect gets more accurate and less expensive, he predicts everyday users will be able to use images of their own bodies to order everything from bespoke suits to custom bicycles and skateboard gear. They could even create realistic video game avatars based on their own bodies, he said.
"We really believe in this notion of mass customization," O’Farrell said.
Body Labs would host adjustable models of customers’ bodies and provide APIs for third parties, like clothing stores and online games, to access the data with permission, he said.
"We’ll curate your body model for you, whatever you want to do with it," he said.
The software, which for scalability’s sake runs in the Amazon Web Services cloud, works by matching points across body scans to create a realistic model of how humans are shaped, said Eric Rachlin, Body Labs’ vice president of product design.
"To really do anything with scan data, you have to have some sort of correspondence between it," Rachlin said. "If point 587 is in the middle of my shoulder, then on your scan, point 587 is in the middle of your shoulder."
That process of matching points across scans is called registration. In Body Labs’ system, based on published research by company founder and Max Planck Institute researcher Michael Black, points in new scans can be matched to the system’s existing understanding of the human body and also used to improve its accuracy, Rachlin said. With that technique, called coregistration, an initial basic model can be bootstrapped into one that’s more sophisticated, he said.
"We have this giant statistical model which we’re pretty sure is the world’s most accurate of 3-D body shapes and how it changes with pose," O’Farrell said. An individual model’s shape can be changed, too—an interactive demo lets users tweak parameters like height, weight, and inseam length and watch the effect on a virtual model.
Using body-to-body comparisons could one day make for better online clothing recommendations than those that exist today, which tend to rely on user-submitted measurements, reports about customers’ well-fitting existing wardrobe items or guidance from personal shoppers, O’Farrell said.
"We actually believe that we have a much better solution in terms of apparel," he said, matching customers to clothing that’s known to fit bodies similar to theirs.
Body Labs’ technology could also predict how users’ bodies would change under different scenarios, ranging from pregnancy to a new gym routine, Rachlin said.
"When the last guy did the workout regimen, this is what happened, so this is what we think will happen to you," gyms might one day be able to tell customers, he said.
[Image: Flickr user Uqbar is back]