Terminator bots aim to give web shoppers the right fit
An Estonian firm has developed a team of shape-shifting robots designed to help shoppers get the right fit when buying clothes online.
"Only 7% of all clothing sales in the world happen online," says Heikki Haldre, chief executive of Fits.me.
"And the reason is that there's no way to really try clothes on before you buy."
Three years ago, Mr Haldre set out to change that, by combining robotics and fashion.
He secured just over a million pounds in funding from the European Union, and approached Maarja Kruusma, professor of biorobotics at the University of Tallinn, with a novel proposal.
Could she help build a robot that could shape-shift into almost any body shape and size?
"My first reaction was to wave my arms and say: 'It's not possible. Dream on'," laughs Prof Kruusma.
"Think of all the minute - and not so minute - differences in every human body.
"Now, think of all the sensors, actuators and programming it would take to get one single robot to be able to reflect all those differences," says Prof Kruusma
Undaunted by the challenges, the project got under way.
"First we did interviews with tailors and fashion designers," says Prof Kruusma.
"We tried to scale down the problem by figuring out which measurements are considered really important."
"Of course, everyone told us that it was all incredibly important and that tailoring is an art,'" she added.
Prof Kruusma and her team did eventually manage to narrow things down.
They started by focusing, she half-jokes, "on God's less complicated creature, the male".
"In men's fashion, shoulder and neck measurements are very important, but the lower stomach not so much."
Using a database of body sizes provided by another project partner, Human Solutions GmBH in Germany, the researchers managed to refine their design and programming.
Finally they created a robotic upper-body mannequin that they felt could shape-shift its torso, neck and upper arms the way they wanted it to.
"I guess it's kind of like The Terminator," jokes Mr Haldre.
"Our robotic mannequin can shape-shift to about 100,000 different body shapes and sizes. It can grow petite, or muscular. It can create a virtual copy of pretty much everyone's body."
Mr Haldre's original idea was to sell the robots to tailors.
But he soon realized that there might be bigger business in working with online retailers.
He decided to try to use the robots to create a "virtual fitting room".
Imagine, Mr Haldre says, visiting your favourite online clothing retailer.
"You're looking at a blue shirt you must have. So, first we ask you to enter your body measurements. And then the online version of the robot will morph to your shape and size.
"Then, you can ask the robot to show how it will look on other sizes, such as small or extra large," he said.
However the robot is not doing this in real-time.
Instead, Fits.me puts a small-sized shirt on the robot, and then runs a program where the mannequin shape-shifts into roughly 2,000 different body types, capturing an image for each one.
Then, they repeat the process with all the different shirt sizes.
The result is a database of images for every shirt, and every size, that can be called up when you input your dimensions online.
No shirt, no service
Fits.me's virtual fitting room is currently getting a trial run with Hawes and Curtis.
The London-based shirtmaker has integrated Fits.me's virtual fitting room into its own website.
Hawes and Curtis' e-commerce director, Antony Comyns, is pleased with the results so far.
"Not only do we expect it to increase sales," Mr Comyns says, "but it should also cut down on returns, because customers should be receiving a product that fits perfectly on their bodies."
But what retailers are really pushing for is the female version of the Fits.me mannequin.
On average, women spend much more on clothing than men.
But the female robot is much harder, says Professor Kruusma.
"You can't just take a male mannequin and put breasts on it. That doesn't work," she says.
And, she notes, its about more than just more complicated biomechanics.
Women, she notes, also tend to be more discerning in their clothing purchases, trying a wider variety of cuts, styles and shapes before deciding on an item.
That makes getting the female robot right an even harder task.
Still, the company hopes to have it ready in October.
Is Prof Kruusma afraid, though, that there might be a danger in making Fits.me too realistic? That, just maybe, some people don't want to see how they really look?
"That's a very real threat," she says.
"We give you immediate feedback on what you look like in a particular item.
"You can try on a selection of styles and sizes, even if you are size XXL.
"Hopefully you can find something and say, 'hey, that looks pretty good on me. I actually like my majestic figure'."