Network: The shape of things to come

Imagine having all of your clothes made to measure. Body-scanning technology will soon make it possible. By Andy Oldfield
Click to follow
Technology has its fads and fashions, like anything else. But when technology takes off in an area such as body scanning, hi-tech and fashion go hand in hand almost literally. Research at Nottingham Trent University is kick-starting a revolution in clothing design and manufacture that is set to have far-reaching repercussions. Not only will clothes fit better, but the whole market model for selling them is likely to undergo a radical shift.

Say goodbye to the tape measure and high-street stores full of mass produced clothes. Get ready for 3D body-scanned measurements and made-to-measure, customised garments purchased from virtual stores over the Internet.

If you approximate to a standard body shape and size, buying off-the- shelf is a relatively cheap and stress-free process. The problem, and it's a painful one to those who cannot afford to employ traditional bespoke tailors or dressmakers, is that the average dimensions on which standard sizes are based do not necessarily bear much relationship to the way people measure up. Many UK manufacturers still use data derived from a British Standards survey conducted in 1951. A lot has happened to the average body in 47 years, but not much objective research has been carried out on it.

Professor Stephen Gray of the Computer Clothing Research Centre at Nottingham Trent University has been working to change that. He and his team have developed software and techniques to use electronic scanners to analyse human size and shape. The resultant data are something that designers and manufacturers can use to meet demands for well-made and comfortable clothes.

"In our market research," Gray says, "we've found that, particularly in Europe, people want something that's personal, but they can't afford the time to go to a tailor. A body scan is a fast process. The idea is that you can go in and be measured or scanned once and you can use the measurement many times. And use it electronically."

Using a Symcad electronic measuring booth developed by a French company, Telmat, the team at Trent set out to build a database. "We've measured 8,000 women by hand and electronically. We've got a database which has been made from surveys for half a dozen retailers. And each retailer's got a different angle, which is quite interesting.

"Someone like Evans specialises in the larger lady, so they're only really interested in sizes 16 to 32. But they're also interested in the entire age spectrum, they're going from age 16 to maybe 90. Whereas someone like Oasis, who we've done work for, really wanted to get the size 12 right. And they only sell to 18 to 35 year olds."

Persuading women to strip to their underwear and step into the booth was not a problem, Grays says. "When we explain we're aiming to make better- fitting clothes, we've had people - large and small, old and young alike - wanting to take part in the survey. Size and shape and better clothing are important issues," Gray says.

Using software developed in-house, the 2D images of people adopting standard poses are analysed and linked to market research questionnaires. Although retailers such as the Arcadia Group, Next and Oasis were involved, the result is a generic database charting the shifting shape and size of the human body across age and class divisions in Britain.

"The hamburger effect is alive and well and living in the UK," says Gray. "The average size is going up quite dramatically. We know that obesity is a significant issue on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK it's 15 per cent and increasing, in the States its something like 20 per cent and increasing.

"The average size, depending on which chart you use, is roughly a 16," Gray says. "So we're significantly bigger than people design for because most women's wear is designed for a size 12. We're not even starting to design for the average, which probably explains why, particularly so many large ladies say: 'I can never find anything that fits me and looks good'."

As well as more girth, increasingly sedentary lifestyles are leading to changing postures, too - something that the 2D body scanning picks up on and makes amenable to analysis. "We analyse numbers and can actually say what a 1998 size 12 is. We can also analyse shape," Gray says. "What this has done is allow the different retailers to characterise their own particular customer base. And it's staggering, the difference between these people."

Better average figures for clothes makers to base their designs on is a huge step forward. "What we're trying to reinvent," Gray says, "is the way that people first started looking at the relationship between body measurements and garments. For example, with trousers, there's normally a seam at the centre, underneath the crutch. How much do you put as a shape around the back? And how much at the front? You can well imagine that if we're getting porkier, the stomach needs more fabric than maybe it would in previous days. Maybe the bum is also changing shape. And that balancing act is the skill of making clothes that fit.

"People who understand the link between body measurements and garment measurements are rare. We're having to go back in some instances 500 years to the original texts that talk about the links between the shapes you cut out and the ways when they're joined together they create a 3D pattern. It's the baby that's been thrown out with the bathwater over the last 20 years as we've pursued mass production," Gray says. "Putting back that skill base rests basically on using and exploiting computer technology."

Three-dimensional body scanning is even more powerful. In the US, a laser- scanning programme is being developed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The US Air Force aims to make up the ground on British research by measuring 10,800 men and women of various ages and weights. Although, an important aim of the project is to make better-fitting uniforms and protective clothing such as anti-g force suits, the project is also intended "to define size variability in the general population so that garment designers can produce sizes of clothing that improve the fit of off-the-rack items", according to Major Jeffrey Hoffmeister, a researcher at the Computerized Anthropometric Research and Design laboratory.

Traditionally, 3D scanning has been seen as an expensive technology, needing the power of Silicon Graphic workstations to handle the imaging and data manipulation. But at Trent, the 3D scanning system runs happily on a Windows NT box. The data from digital cameras is transformed into 3D images that can be manipulated by Cadcam packages. From one scan, measurements can be quickly derived - straight lines from any point on the body to any other can be calculated instantly, as can the real distance "going over the nooks and into the crannies" that a tape measure would only approximate to.

This is the prototype for taking scanners out of the laboratory and putting them into booths where people can use them as easily as they now use booths to get passport photographs. The data can be stored on a smart card or floppy disk, but it could also be used over the Internet. "We're aiming for the booths to be installed in 2000," Gray says. "You should be able to order personalised clothing from anywhere in the world, knowing that they have access to your form and figure."

It's the start of a very different way of manufacturing goods. So far, 20th century manufacturing has been set up to seek economies of scale in mass production. The next step is towards mass customisation. It is happening already with PCs - you can use the Net to get Dell or Apple to build a machine to your specifications. Digitising information about body size and shape has the potential for something similar in the clothing industry. The National Textile Center University Research Consortium in the US refers to it as "a paradigm shift for competitive manufacturing" and is busy examining its economic implications.

Levis has been experimenting with tailoring mass-market jeans to fit individual bodies. But the combination of body scanning and the Internet widens the scope massively. Gray says the manufacturers are not just sitting there idly pondering future developments. "In the West and in the UK in particular, they're really lean and mean," he says. "They've been through the delayering and destructuring. They've been through the fact that they can't compete just on cheap labour. "They can compete incredibly well on service and design. And most of the market research we've done has shown that people are not price sensitive within maybe 25 per cent of a key cost if they get something that truly addresses their requirements. With higher value goods people are prepared to pay a small premium for something that makes them special.

"Some of the retailers will, in effect, become brokers of a person to a garment. Effectively, they're being commissioned for the design, but manufacture will be in a factory somewhere in the back end of Nottingham or wherever it happens to be," Gray says. "And there are some factories now that are so streamlined they can do that within 48 hours."

Mapping Out An End

To Shopping Hell

I AM NO Lara Croft. No, really. Yet not having the proportions of perfect Lara almost caused me to bolt rather than confront my 3D digital image. When the genial Professor Stephen Gray explained the advantage of computerised measuring, I heard "cellulite... bad posture... every woman has a belly". Making real body shapes a less painful truth is no easy task.

My initial reaction to the body-scanning system which gives near-as-perfect measurements was great, fantastic, goodbye to fittings in the nearest size (only to find it isn't near at all). I saw an end to embarrassment in changing rooms. I was sure my opinion would be shared, especially among women and especially if asked at the end of a long day's shopping. A quick poll among pals confirmed this: to have exact measurements and customised garments would make shopping infinitely more pleasant, less time-consuming and resulting in wiser purchases.

The body-scanning process itself is straightforward. Professor Gray directed me to stand between two cameras and keep still. The digital photographs travelled to the computer and up flashed my image. Ten seconds and it was all over. It's similar to a medical examination, except that we were doing this in order to get me looking fabulous. And as the horizontal light put fetching stripes down my body, I preferred to think of it as like going to a tanning salon. Professor Gray pointed out that not one of the 800 women he has scanned had a problem with being photographed in their underwear (I wasn't willing - one person is fine, but hundreds of thousands of Independent readers?).

After the two images - front and back shots - are put together on the screen, the all-round image can be rotated. Not only does the system do the measurements befitting a top-class tailor, but it allows a tailor or designer to see how clothes hang, for instance, when the person is sitting.

The only real disappointment was not walking away with a customised outfit. But I left with no doubt that this technology will soon change our shopping habits. Nevertheless, this technology, which Professor Gray admits still has a way to go, offers a route out of shopping hell. Imagine a private booth in the corner of, say, Marks & Spencer's. What's more, Professor Gray says the system can even calculate for individual fashion nuances.

Of course, it could really turn out to be an X-Files plot to clone and mass produce the human race. But in reality, the prospect of being able to get tailored clothes for a special night out at little extra cost will be a fantasy come true. Jennifer Rodger