The Avatar’s New Clothes

Los Angeles-based startup Styku is chasing the Holy Grail of the online apparel business: making a virtual fitting room that actually works. How they're overcoming the various challenges of apparel software, including the most vexing problem of all—outfitting virtual breasts.

virtual fitting room

I’m sitting in an office in east Los Angeles with Raj Sareen, 30, tech entrepreneur and scion of the Sareen family, a respected name in the world of apparel. Raj is walking me through his new venture, Styku, a "virtual fitting room," rotating an attractive female avatar in an advanced stage of undress. Raj and his coworkers handle the semi-nude avatars with a clinical detachment; this is their job, after all, building software that helps designers make and fit clothing, and I begin to be ashamed to find my eye, and mind, wandering.

Then Raj’s father, Ram, approaches—a portly, jovial figure. "Did you let him play with the boobs?" Ram asks his son in a raspy voice.

Boobs, it turns out, are a central and abiding concern for the Sareen family, whose members have been drawn one by one into the apparel software industry from elsewhere. Ram, the patriarch, trained as a mechanical engineer, took a job fixing sewing machines, and finally founded a company, Tukatech, that made fashion-design software. (Breasts, he later explained, are the hardest body part to design for. "Have you ever met a woman with two that are the same size?" he asked.) Years later his wife, Iva, abandoned a successful career as a lawyer to develop Ram’s software from 2-D to 3-D applications. And now Raj, 30, has left a potential career as a NASA astrophysicist to head up Styku. He’s chasing after the Holy Grail of the online apparel business—a virtual fitting room that actually works.

Online clothing already represents enormous market; while brick-and-mortar stores languished in 2009, Internet sales grew. But for online clothing sales to reach their full potential, someone has to overcome a central problem: the problem of fit.

Others have ventured, tentatively, into the realm of clothing the avatar. Several body scanner companies can produce highly accurate avatars, and sites like MyVirtualModel are able to project designs onto a body ("paper dolling," Raj calls this), giving users an idea of whether a particular style or color suits them. But when it comes to simulating not just style, but fit—the physical interaction of a virtual garment and body—no one has yet succeeded. (Though Fits.me, an Estonian startup we've covered before, has an interesting idea, different from Styku's approach—a shape-shifting robot.) "The issue of dressing an avatar is incredibly complex," Susan Ashdown, a professor in the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design at Cornell, tells Fast Company. Fit is subtle, a realm in which a few millimeters can be the difference between comfort and discomfort, and the wide range of fabric properties—from the tightest spandex to the thickest wool—are extremely difficult to model in a virtual world. To truly and successfully model fit, says Ashdown, you "have to understand what every yarn is doing."

This is where the Sareens have a head start. First, their long history in the apparel software industry means that they already have access to vast stores of data. "More than 400 brands are already using our design technology," says Ram. "Patterns, fabric, construction details—we have that on file," and can migrate that data down from the designer of the clothing to the customer who wants to virtually try it on. Second, the family's engineering and physics background stands them in good stead. Rarely is conducting research on extra-solar planets good preparation for entering the fashion business. In this one case—thankfully for Raj, who spent years doing just that—it is. ("Who would have thought the astronaut would have come to the garment business?" Ram says of Raj.) Using physics simulations, Styku’s avatars can run, jump, dance, ice-skate, you name it—and the clothing draped on the body will stir, twirl, bunch, and shake realistically.

A bare-bones prototype of the site went up about a month ago, here. Styku will be rolling out its product in stages, as it expands partnerships with other businesses. For now, the site is lean: You can enter measurements or simply choose from a few cookie-cutter shapes to generate your avatar. It will be more fleshed out by the time it launches properly in mid-June; by then it will have one retail partner, and will present at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition, the biggest tradeshow in that space. Styku has also been in talks with body-scanning companies—there's a leading one called [TC]2, and another called My Best Fit that's been on a PR tear lately—to possibly partner in avatar generation. High-tech scanners already have a presence in some malls and retail stores, and if the technology becomes cheaper, they could become commonplace. Some companies are also working on technology that would let you scan at home, via snapshots on a webcam or by other means. Sareen says he's at work on a home scanning device of his own, the details of which he'll be able to disclose soon.

Once Styku has built or acquired your avatar, it can pair it with the data it has on garments. The data are combined to make accurate 3-D renderings and animations, and also can be used to generate "heat maps" that show where a garment fits tightly—red on a heat map—and where it fits loosely—green.

What would it take to make Styku a real household name? The challenges ahead seem large, but not insurmountable. There are a lot of moving parts in a successful virtual fitting room—an accurate avatar, precise information on clothing, and the collaboration of designers and retailers. But if Styku could make the case to major clothing retailers that its software was the strongest, then retailers could eventually include a Styku plugin on their site. You could file that avatar with Tukatech via a scanner in a mall or a home scanning device, and next time you went on the American Apparel website, you could click on a piece of clothing that interested you and rapidly try it on your avatar, right on the site. If enough retailers followed suit, Styku could become a major part of your online shopping experience. Much in the way that Facebook holds your social presence online, Styku, as the custodian of your avatar and the clearinghouse for data on virtual clothing, could hold your bodily presence online.

Before I take my leave of the Tukatech/Styku offices in Los Angeles, I stop by the desk of Jason Delevan, one of the company's lead programmer/animators. We sit by his computer, talking about the garment business, about show business (he used to do graphics for CSI), and about how Tukatech's philosophy, as a software company, is to "sell knowledge." He and his colleagues, over the course of the day, have shown me that making clothes, and selling them, is far more complex and technology-dependent than I would have imagined. One Tukatech program, for instance, uses computational geometry to minimize the number of incisions a roboticized blade needs to make when cutting a piece of cloth.

Eventually, though, I ask Delevan the burning question.

How long did it take for him to stop being distracted by all the digital breasts?

He doesn't have to reflect for long. "Two months," he says.

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