Buying clothes off the peg could become a thing of the past, says Vanessa Spedding
One day we will all wear tailor-made clothes. When we want a suit or a dress, we will choose the cloth and then be ushered into an electronic measuring booth. Our dimensions will be fed into a computer that will automatically translate the three-dimensional garment into two-dimensional pieces. The pattern will be sent straight to laser cutters, the pieces of cloth will be made up by hand and we will have our perfectly fitting item within a few days.

The technology to do this is already available. It is a logical development of a project called Virtuosi, funded by public and private money and based in the traditional garment-making county of Nottinghamshire.

Industrial and academic partners, including BT and universities in Nottingham, Manchester and Lancaster, have collaborated on a system that allows enterprises involved in garment manufacture to co-operate remotely. Clothing design is usually a slow, iterative process involving the buyer, manufacturer and designer, often in different locations. Meeting up to view, discuss and modify the latest sketches may require a dozen journeys; agreement can take several months.

By offering a shared "virtual" environment in which to collaborate, Virtuosi's fashion pilot should eliminate travel - and could bring decision time down to a single afternoon on-line. Remote participants view a three-dimensional model of the proposed garment simultaneously. The garment is "worn" on screen by a mannequin, although a "virtual catwalk" is planned, with "walking" models illustrating the movement of the fabric. Each participant controls the perspective they see and can make changes to the garment (such as cloth type, colour or pocket shape). They can talk via an audio channel; a video-link is planned.

The environment, though not full virtual reality, is as realistic as possible, as are the commands. Actions such as pinning or tucking are performed with the keyboard or mouse, while spoken requests, such as "face me" will use voice recognition technology when the system is complete.

Creating the software has been an intensive process: it is a complex business modelling character and drape for different cloth types and a variety of body dimensions. Each research partner is modelling one part of the system and incorporating it into the main structure. BT has provided the communication infrastructure - an ISDN network to allow high-speed image transmission - while GEC Plessey Telecommunications has developed the switching technology.

Nottinghamshire County Council is heavily involved in the project. Its International Clothing Centre is the official conduit for the technology and offers other hi-tech facilities such as "Fins", the Fashion Intelligence Navigation System - a database of textile sources and resources to be used alongside Virtuosi - and an electronic measuring booth. The council has invested pounds 3.7m in the centre, part of which was used to pay for Virtuosi's Silicon Graphics workstations and the virtual reality system provided by Division. The DTI has contributed about pounds 1m to Virtuosi; the partners and local firms have found the rest.

Stephen Godfrey, the council's economic development officer and project manager for the fashion initiative, believes the centre and Virtuosi will take the fashion industry into the next century. Survival in the world market, he says, requires the industry to become more flexible and move away from mass markets. Mr Godfrey conceived the application with Stephen Grey, lecturer in communications and computer graphics at Nottingham Trent University, who runs the research side from its fashion and textiles department. Mr Grey says the technology will revolutionise the buying process by actively involving buyers - currently high street retailers - in the design of the garment.

Local factories have responded positively. Most welcome anything that might improve their competitiveness, and the Virtuosi fashion technology should offer a significant head start. Trials in a number of factories will begin later this year; both Grey and Godfrey predict the technology will be commonplace within a few more. Electronic measuring booths will appear in due course, followed by home design by the end of the century. We will be able to design our own garments, "model" them on screen using a personalised mannequin, and place the order on-line. Off-the-peg clothes could soon be a thing of the past.

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