Thirty billion dollars – that’s what the global market for online clothing sales is worth. And still, a only a small percentage of all clothing sales is via the Internet. You can probably guess why – it’s hard to get a feel for how clothes will look on you unless you try them on. But one Estonian start-up company wants to change that with the help of some robots. The World’s Clark Boyd reports from the Estonian capital Tallinn. (Photo: Hawes & Curtis) (Audio available after 5PM Eastern)
Read the Transcript
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to firstname.lastname@example.org. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
DAVID BARON: The global market for online clothing sales is worth 30 billion dollars. Thirty billion is a lot of money, and yet only a small percentage of clothing is sold on the internet. You can probably guess why; it’s hard to get a feel for how clothes will look on you unless you try them on. But one Estonia start up company wants to change that with the help of some robots. The World’s Clark Boyd reports from the Estonian capital, Tallinn.
CLARK BOYD: Remember when a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger first graced our cinema screens as The Terminator back in 1984? Well before the shape-shifting cyborg could set out to ensure mankind’s destruction, he went in search of some new threads. And, he ran into some local punks. Estonian entrepreneur Heikki Haldre jokes that the worlds of robotics and fashion usually don’t mix. But three years ago he decided to challenge that notion. He got a little more than one and a half million dollars in start up funding from the European Union. His original idea, to create a robotic mannequin that real-world tailors could use.
HEIKKI HALDRE: I guess I can compare this to the movie Terminator. The robot mannequin can shape-shift to about 100,000 different body shapes and sizes. Now it can grow petite and muscular, it can create a virtual copy of pretty much everyone’s body shape and size.
BOYD: Sounds a bit crazy, right? Maarja Kruusma certainly thought so when Haldre ran the idea by her.
MAARJA KRUUSMA: My first reaction was waving my hands, it’s not doable. The idea was can you make mannequins that changes its shape the ways that humans do. And I said dream on.
BOYD: And Kruusma should know. She runs the biorobotics lab at the University of Tallinn. Think of all the minute differences in every human body she says. Now think of all the sensors, the actuators and the programming it would take to get one robot to shape shift to reflect all those differences.
KRUUSMA: First we did lots of interviews with tailors and constructors and fashion designers to figure out what they actually need. What are the things that are really important and we tried to scale down the problem. First interviews started always, everything is terribly, terribly, terribly important. Tailoring is such an art.
BOYD: But Kruusma and her team did begin to narrow things down. First, she jokes, they chose to focus on a less mechanically complicated creature, the male. Shoulders and neck, very important. Lower stomach, not so much. Eventually they created a robot, torso, neck and arms, that they felt could shape shift the way they wanted it to. But by then, Heikki Haldre had a different market in mind.
HALDRE: Nobody buys clothes online and the reason for this is that there is simply no way of trying clothes on before buying. You wouldn’t be able to know if the size fits you.
BOYD: So, Haldre thought, why not use the robots to create a virtual fitting room? He decided to call his company “Fits Me”. Imagine, he says, visiting your favorite clothing retailer online.
HALDRE: You’re looking at this wonderful blue shirt you just must have. So we first ask you to enter your body measurements. Then you will see how this robotic mannequin goes and takes exactly your body shape and size. And then you can go and ask, hey robot, show me how this size small will look.
BOYD: Or the medium, the large, the extra large, you get the idea. Haldre hopes retailers will integrate Fits Me into their existing web sites. London basked shirt maker Hawes and Curtis has been testing Fits Me for about a month now. So far, it seems to be working well, says the company’s e-commerce director, Antony Comyns.
ANTONY COMYNS: Not only do we expect that it will increase sales, but also it should cut down on the returns because they will be receiving a product that should fit perfectly on their body.
BOYD: What Comyns is really pushing for, though, is the female version. Women spend much more on clothing. But making the fem-bot is easier said than done, says robotics researcher Maarja Kruusma.
KRUUSMA: Take a male mannequin, put breasts on it and a few curves, doesn’t work.
BOYD: Kruusma says it’s more than just mechanics. She says women also tend to be more discerning in their clothing purchases. They wear a wider variety of styles, cuts and shapes. But isn’t Kruusma afraid that Fits Me is too realistic? That people don’t want to see how they really look?
KRUUSMA: That is a very real threat and we were actually considering it. On one hand we will show you this is how you look, but on the other hand we show it to you immediately so you don’t need to purchase it and send it back. You get immediate feedback what you look like with that. We can give you a selection of clothes when you are XXXL and you say that well, this is pretty nice on me. I actually like my majestic figure.
BOYD: The female robot mannequin, by the way, is supposed to be ready in October. Meanwhile, with the R and D phase done, Fits Me is moving its business operations to where the market is biggest. The firm says it will open an office in the United States by the end of the year. For The World, this is Clark Boyd, Tallinn, Estonia.
BARON: You can see the Fits Me robots on our website. We’ve got some pictures and video of them in action. Just come to the world dot org.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at email@example.com.