From scanning technology for major sizing studies, to magic mirrors or virtual fitting rooms, 3D technology is helping to transform both retail stores and online shopping.

While they caused something of small furore when introduced as a security measure in airports, 3D whole body scanners in retail spaces appear to have had a completely different effect.

Diverse companies have trialled scanners in retail environments as a customer service, and ultimately, a personalised sales tool. UK-based Bodymetrics, for example, has introduced in-store full body scanning at the department store Selfridges, with sales assistants on hand to suggest the best jeans for a customer's body shape. 

mPort has partnered with local company Jets Swimwear to create an interactive tool to assist online shoppers find their best size, either by using their scan or by entering their measurements.

The company proposes a subscription model for consumers who can sign up for regular or one-off scans and promotes the scanning subscription as a means of tracking changes in body shape over time, as do many of its competitors, not only for better fits but also for health reasons.

Pioneering tools
Pioneering companies in scanning technology have included 3D scanning experts such as the American company [TC]2 , which provided the white light scanning technology for major sizing studies in the UK and the US, and Alvanon, the creator of millimetre-wave (low power radio wave) scanners for some of the world's biggest retailers such as Marks & Spencer and brands such as Levi's.

[TC]2 has a network of scanners through the US that can be used to generate a full 3D body scan. The same concept is also available through an avatar tool, where a customer can enter in their measurements and have a realistic avatar generated on a computer.

Several stores, Tesco and Macy's to name just two, have trialled magic mirrors or virtual fitting rooms that allow customers to try on clothing without getting undressed. As omni-channel retailing becomes the norm and not the exception, 3D full body scanning as a tool to make purchasing decisions is likewise becoming more common.

Access to body scanners in the privacy of a consumer's own home seems likely to follow. Many 3D scanning technology companies are now offering at-home body scan solutions or fitting tools based on the interpretation of basic body measurements.

Microsoft's Kinect scanner offers a readily accessible in-store or at-home private 3D scanner, while experimental mobile phone applications such as Trimensional, developed by US Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Grant Schindler, can generate a 3D image with a mobile phone camera that can be manipulated in various ways and even used to create a rough 3D print.

Avihay Feld, chief operating officer of 3D software developer Browzwear, says public demand has been pushing the development of increasingly sophisticated 3D solutions for online commerce.

"Everyone is looking for a better experience from online shopping. The 3D photorealism is already there, and I wouldn't underestimate anything that is super-easy for the online consumer. If body scanning is not super-easy, it's not going to have the same success. My mother has to be able to do it. This is not the situation today. But four years down the line we will be closer to that," he says. 

Large-scale anthropometric studies
A series of large-scale anthropometric studies based on 3D scanning technology has provided retailers with opportunities to better tailor their fit and sizing to their customers.

One of the first and largest was SizeUK, a collaborative project between the British government, major UK retailers, academics and technology companies that scanned and analysed 11,000 subjects using whole body white light scanners.

The technology is extremely accurate and the survey offered a unique picture of the sizes and shapes of UK shoppers, showing for instance that the average female waist size has increased by 16.5 cm since the 1950s, according to information provided by the technology company Sizemic.

Other similar studies followed, such as SizeUSA, that mapped more than 10,000 individuals in the same way. Interestingly, both studies found that the dimensions of current sizes did not reflect the actual shape of their customers, and one of the major outcomes for retailers and brands was redesigning fit and sizing charts.

This large pool of data has not yet filtered down into sizing standards, however, and a lack of consistent sizing between brands remains a constant headache for retailers - and particularly for online retailers.

According to Nuhad Jahan, of Sweden-based sizing company Virtusize, whose online tool is based on a silhouette comparison of garments to determine fit, 3D avatars are not always the perfect solution to understanding the minor differences between sizes.

"For retailers, our solution is much more cost effective than the 3D solutions, since silhouette comparison doesn't require photography or other complicated input, whilst 3D solutions might require extensive input data from a web shop for each style," she says.

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