ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, the intersection of technology and fashion. For those of us always on the hunt for a better fitting pair of pants or a more flattering dress, a British company thinks it has the answer: body scanning in the privacy of your own home. NPR's Steve Henn explains.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The next time you walk into a dressing room at a department store, there is a very slim chance you could hear this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your scan is about to start. Please be still.
HENN: One of really fun things about living in Silicon Valley is occasionally you just run into people who have kind of crazy ideas about how they want to change the world and are determined to try to make them work.
Last month, I was at the Stanford Mall with a mic and completely by accident bumped into woman named Tania Fauvel.
TANIA FAUVEL: I came from a company called Bodymetrics where we scan people's bodies. And from their body scans, we create a 3D model. And from that, we can actually try on clothing to see how it fits online.
HENN: Bodymetrics installs these pods in dressing rooms. They're equipped with lasers or special cameras. The pods create detailed digital 3D models of your body. The company has plans to put a pod in the U.S. this month. Right now, one is in Selfridges, a department store in London.
SURAN GOONATILAKE: The customers would come here. They would get undressed to their underwear. They would go into the scanner here - obviously, everything is closed.
HENN: Suran Goonatilake is the CEO.
GOONATILAKE: It takes about five seconds and we get about hundreds of measurements and hopefully we'll find a jean that fits you perfectly.
HENN: Right now, the pod just delivers suggestions of jeans that are likely to fit you. Eventually, though, Bodymetrics wants to be able to display what those jeans would look like on you digitally. Sucharita Mulpuru is a retail analyst at Forrester.
SUCHARITA MULPURU: This isn't the first time that we have seen technology that, you know, the idea is to try to match clothes to some 3D rendering of an image.
HENN: She says the real Holy Grail for companies like Bodymetrics is to let you scan your body at home. After all, in a store, you can actually try on the jeans and see if they fit. But when you're shopping online at home, that's not possible.
MULPURU: Return rates in online retail have between a 20 and 30 percent rate. And if they could, you know, cut that in half, that would be very lucrative for the retailer, and it would be less frustrating for the customer.
HENN: But teaching computers to see and model the real world in three dimensions won't just change fitting rooms or online retail. It could transform everything from surgery to architecture. It could create computers that watch us and model the world. David Kim is a Microsoft researcher in Cambridge.
DAVID KIM: I'm interested in interfaces which are hidden away.
HENN: He wants to use the Microsoft Kinect, the company's videogame controller that uses 3D cameras, to build computers that observe us, watch us maybe without us even realizing.
KIM: The computer will just pick up my context. It will know what I'm intending to do.
HENN: Right now, he's using the Kinect to model humans and their environment. David shows off a project Microsoft calls Kinect Fusions.
STEVE CLAYTON: So what we're seeing right now is David is holding up just a regular Kinect sensor. We're studying...
HENN: Steve Clayton is at Microsoft. And as Steve talks, David walks around the room holding the Kinect. On a television screen, I can see the machine building a detailed 3D model of the room and everything in it, including me. It captures everything down to the shape of my ears and the wrinkles on my shirt.
CLAYTON: And then we can also do some different things. We can start to introduce other objects into the scene.
HENN: These objects aren't real. They're purely digital. David presses a button, and suddenly, thousands of virtual balls shoot at my 3D image on the screen.
CLAYTON: And you'll see that those balls literally drip across our surfaces. So it recognizes that this isn't just a static video of 2D images. It literally is a 3D model.
HENN: And Kinect's cameras are the very same cameras that are built into Bodymetrics scanning pod. You could use this kind of modeling in hundreds, maybe thousands of ways. But back at the Stanford Mall, Tania Fauvel from Bodymetrics wants to use it to drape your body not with balls in a videogame, but with virtual clothes online.
OK. So when people hear about your technology, I think the crucial consumer question is: Do you have to stand in front of your Kinect naked?
FAUVEL: You - so long as you're wearing tight-fitting clothing, that's fine. We do a lot of demonstrations with just like gym gear.
HENN: Fauvel is convinced this could transform how millions of us shop. But capturing painfully accurate images of your body, turns out, that may be the easy part.
SUSAN ASHDOWN: It is very difficult to model a cloth in three dimensions.
HENN: Susan Ashdown studies body mapping and the clothing industry at Cornell University.
ASHDOWN: When you take the whole range of human sizes, shapes, postures and the whole wide variety of types of cloth and how they interact on the body...
HENN: It's mindboggling how complicated a digital dressing room actually is to create. So Ashdown says this vision of an all-seeing computer that helps you find the perfect pair of jeans may have to wait a few more years. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.