Virtual Shopping in 3D

Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor is changing everything, including how we try on clothes

Linda Smith walked on stage at the Spring 2011 Demo Conference in Palm Desert, Calif., on Feb. 28 and tried on clothes. Looking at herself in an interactive mirror, she tested out virtual dresses, handbags, and jewelry. The interactive "fitting room," called Swivel, is a mix of software created by her company, FaceCake Marketing Technologies of Calabasas, Calif., and a hacked 3D camera from Microsoft's (MSFT) Kinect gaming console.

Kinect started out as a controller-free gaming system, but developers such as FaceCake are writing new applications for the system's 3D camera. Kinect cameras essentially transform computers into two-way mirrors whose system can see users. One potential use of Kinect is making accurate 3D models of people to help them purchase everything from swimsuits to jeans online.

In 2011, 148.1 million shoppers, or about 83 percent of U.S. Internet users ages 14 and older, will make a purchase online, according to eMarketer. In the first quarter of 2011, retail e-commerce sales totaled $46 billion, according to the Census Bureau of the U.S. Commerce Dept. Yet almost 38 percent of women don't buy online, according to Forrester Research (FORR), because they want to be able to see and touch items before they hand over a credit card. Retailers have tried to help shoppers overcome reservations with new visualization tools such as augmented reality, which lets customers try on clothes virtually, according to eMarketer. "The more lifelike you can make your e-commerce experience, the better that experience will be," says Noah Elkin, principal analyst at eMarketer. "If you're a retailer, it will make your site a more persuasive place to go to make that purchase."

Augmented-Reality Applications

In the retail sector, companies have been experimenting with two-dimensional augmented-reality applications that let customers try on clothes virtually. Last Sept. 10, Macy's (M) installed a Magic Fitting Room in its Herald Square Store in New York. Within minutes, shoppers were trying on the most popular tops, dresses, and jackets, creating as many as 16 outfits that could be stored in a digital closet and then shared on Facebook and by e-mail. Over the next six weeks, more than 16,000 fitting sessions were completed, according to the maker of the Magic Fitting Room, digital marketing and technology agency LBI International (LBI:NA).

Similarly in April, Swiss watchmaker Tissot ran an interactive display in a Harrods window, inviting passersby to try on watches. Mobile apps also let EBay (EBAY) shoppers try on sunglasses or outfits superimposed on photos of themselves. Still, these efforts lack the depth of 3D images.

The 3D camera technology is just now becoming sufficiently affordable to be included in these marketing efforts. "Before we were looking at cameras that were $1,000 to $2,000 and didn't do what we needed," says Tom Chamberlin, vice-president of business development at FaceCake. "It's crazy that the Kinect camera is $150 and I can get one at Best Buy," he says.

At the Demo Conference, FaceCake Marketing's chief executive officer took the stage, wearing a sleeveless black dress. Looking at herself in the mirror, Smith reached out and scrolled through virtual handbags with a wave of her hand. She tried on a tan one from Marc Jacobs and then decided to check out a Burberry (BRBY:LN) plaid bag to see how it looked with a double-strand pearl necklace from Nordstrom (JWN). She wasn't actually holding the bags, but the mirror indicated that she was. Smith switched the bag from hand to hand. When she rotated, the bag stayed on her arm.

Augmented Fittings in Moscow

FaceCake isn't the only company to try hacking the Kinect for retail applications. In Moscow, a company called AR Door created an augmented fitting room for retailer Topshop and then displayed it in the company's Moscow store for three days, starting on May 5.

Recently, FaceCake has begun targeting the bridal industry. Swivel can, for example, do weight-loss visualization to enable a bride to see how she might look if she were 15 pounds lighter in the dress of her dreams, Smith says. The company recently figured out how to get two people into Swivel at the same time, so a bride and a bridesmaid could virtually try on coordinated dresses.

FaceCake is starting with a few boutiques in Los Angeles and is talking to a mall company about installing Swivel in September. It's pushing for a fourth-quarter release in stores and homes.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for FaceCake came shortly after the Demo Conference, when Microsoft called to express interest in the app. Smith and Chamberlin were invited to visit Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., Retail Experience Center, a 20,000-square-foot facility where the company experiments with retail innovations. "They had interesting ideas about how to move forward," she says. "They've been incredibly helpful and supportive."

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