The Dawning of a New Age of Augmented Reality-Led Fashion

If the title of this article has conjured up images of LED light-embedded bags and swathes of technophiles in VR headsets, prepare yourself for an altogether more sophisticated and integrated use of tech hardware and augmented reality where the result isn’t ‘in yer face geekery’, but more tech-enabled emotional brand experiences.  Leading this charge across fashion design and brand experiences is the London College of Fashion-based Fashion Innovation Agency, whose 5th birthday last week acted as a summary of five years of giant leaps in tech and bold experimentation that began with a smart phone dress (seems rudimentary now, right?!) and most recently a live CGI fashion show.  How and why such big leaps, and why does it matter?  Is the fashion industry really ready and open to placing a digital layer over the physical world?  Yes, and here’s why…

Top: Nokia smartphone skirt in collaboration with Fyodor Golan – Image: BT.com  Middle and above: Steven Tai x ILMxLab at London Fashion Week – Images: Techstyler

Backed by recent calamitous downturns by House of Fraser and Topshop, it seems fashion retailers have lost sway with consumers, who are increasingly shopping online, led by Instagram connected e-commerce, that allows single swipe shopping, delivery within hours and outstanding customer service.  Why go to a store?  Stores are impersonal and finding the right style in the right size can be slow and frustrating due to outdated and inaccurate inventory systems.  Zara is a regular disappointment in this area, boasting stock at specified stores when checking Zara.com, which isn’t actually in stock when visiting the store.  On a recent trip to Zara the staff admitted to me that their inventory is wildly inaccurate and the online stock check is not up-to-date.  Wasted trips equal dissatisfied customers and further back the case for shopping online instead.

“Retail on the high street is incredibly boring” were the frank words of Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the FIA during a panel discussion at their 5th birthday event recently.  As the matchmaker and orchestrator of five years of projects spanning the aforementioned smartphone skirt, the Sabinna X Pictofit Hololens mixed reality shopping experience and Steven Tai’s Live CGI presentation transporting the audience to Macau, the FIA are well versed in breaking new ground and facilitating fashion and technology collaborations for the benefit of both industries.

Images: SABINNA x Pictofit

The outcomes and learnings ultimately filter down to London College of Fashion students, arming them with next-generation tech skills in their fashion toolkit, helping them push the boundaries of fashion design and retail and shape the future of the industry.

LCF students have plenty of ideas on how to improve the retail shopping experience.  Most of these hinge on bridging the physical and digital realms, essentially draping a digital layer over physical stores to enhance and personalise them for individual customers.  The fruits of these ideas were presented at the Future of Fashion Incubator launch event, part of an ongoing partnership between Microsoft and the FIA.  LCF students teamed up with Microsoft experts to experiment with new technologies including Hololens, IoT and AI.  The students were mentored by the Microsoft team in their chosen technology in order transform their ambitious ideas into (often mixed) reality, harnessing what Maruschka Loubser, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Microsoft called the ‘inspirational and exciting’ vision of the students.  Their mission was to unlock the students’ innovation and here are the results…

One team of students created Hololux, a shopping platform experienced via the untethered Hololens Mixed Reality headset which presents 3D renders of products in online stores, bridging the 2D e-commerce experience with the 3D physical instore shopping experience.  Hololens headsets can be networked so that groups of people can shop together regardless of their individual locations.  Want your friend abroad’s opinion on an outfit?  Simply link up and shop together.  The team identified airport lounges as an ideal location for this experience, where travellers may want to experience luxury shopping while waiting for their plane, but at the same time avoid the chaos of the crowded and busy airport.  Totally imaginable.

Hololux in creation – behind the scenes  – Image: Microsoft

Augmenta also made use of the mixed reality Hololens, but this time for visual merchandising using holograms to simulate interior store layouts.  Their platform allows visual merchandisers to map the interior space with digital objects (furniture, fittings and clothing) via hand gestures and voice input quickly, cheaply and with less waste.  Colleagues can co-create by networking their Hololens headsets, again, regardless of location.  The team also identified an opportunity to enhance the platform with AI to provide integrated heat mapping to show the flow of people through the store and further refine and target the visual merchandising based on that.  Augmenta present at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft

Team DiDi created a garment label that allows lifecycle tracking and transparency.  By using RFID and NFC technology the label can be scanned to access details of the materials and manufacturing of the garment, providing a more current and broader version of the FIA’s previous collaboration with Martine Jarlgaard.  What’s exciting about DiDi’s concept is their consideration of brand storytelling as part of their platform, which is tailored to help brands celebrate their back-story and share it with their consumers, really making it part of the overall brand experience rather than a cumbersome ethics and supply chain document delivered up via the CSR section of their website, as with many brands currently.

AI and neural networks are exciting technical tools which allow the training of a piece of software to recognise images and objects, based on processing a huge number of images and developing a visual ‘memory’ based on them.  This is a powerful tool for visually identifying consumers wearing certain brands, styles and silhouettes – for example shoppers in a mall walking past a camera connected to this software, which can then be used to target appropriate advertising to the passing consumer.  This is the principle of Smart Signs, created by another of the LCF team.  This tool also allows trend analysis of passers by, which the creators say could help retailers create more targeted clothing for local markets and reduce mass production waste of low-demand styles.  They say the next step is facial recognition for personalisation of the Smart Signs experience.  You may find it comforting to know that this platform is much like our human brain in that is ‘sees’ passers by, identifies their style and then dumps that data – meaning personal data is not stored.

Smart Signs demo at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft

‘Janet’ is a smart-phone-based instore shopping buddy that scans your outfit while you are trying it on in the changing room and suggests alternative styles and other garments to style with it.  It can also tell you where to get a similar style for a better price, or your size in an alternative location.  I love Janet’s everyday name, and I guess that suggests the team wants you to think of her as a really helpful and insightful shopping friend – she’s not judging, just helping.  I can imagine Janet being very helpful in a multi-brand or department store, but in a single brand store I guess Janet won’t be so welcome as she’s likely to recommend rival brands for the benefit of the consumer’s choice.

Casting my mind back to the FIA 5th Anniversary event and panel discussion, I remember the input of Mohen Leo of ILMxLab, the team which created the Live CGI for Steven Tai’s London Fashion Week presentation.  “You can achieve ‘stickiness’ in retail by adding a digital layer, providing a different experience each time”, he said.  Clearly this gives shoppers a reason to visit a physical store.  “Shopping is only about emotions and emotional connection”, said Matthew Drinkwater.  He then went on to say that technology affords an opportunity to enhance this connection and emotion.

   Images:  FIA 

For those attending Fashion Week, the all too familiar break-neck speed of the shows and presentations often leaves the audience with a feeling of visual overload.  Each show blends into the next, as there is rarely an experiential layer  – just the immediate visual presentation of the clothes.  This used to be enough, but not anymore.  The success of Steven Tai’s Live CGI show was its engaging combination of digital and physical worlds, that transported the audience to Macau in an ever-changing landscape which drew the audience into its subtle evolution as the models meandered around the stage alongside a digital counterpart.  To quote Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLab this was “storyliving, not just storytelling”.  In this recent BBC article, the House of Fraser team commented to say it “urgently needs to adapt” to “fundamental changes” in the retail industry.  An emotional and engaging experience is what retailers and brands need to offer, and the tools with which to do this lie in augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

For a snapshot explanation of the difference between VR, AR and MR, click here  Header Image: Microsoft Follow Techstyler on Instagram and Twitter

TECHtoberfest

Plenty of people like beer and plenty of people like tech. It was only a matter of time before the two came together in the form of TECHtoberfest. Held in hipster land’s London Fields Brewery, TECHtoberfest combines the tradition of German Oktoberfest with the next generation of startups and the future of tech. Led by Robert Fenton of HipHacHus, which aims to inspire, educate and support tech startups through a number of events in London, TECHtoberfest had two rooms jammed with tech and entertainment.  The ‘fest was a social gathering with onsite brewed beer and local tech companies demoing their newest apps, games and devices. With a distinctly local vibe it was friendly and inclusive, even if being one of the few girls there meant I had to muscle in to try out the gadgets, apps and games being demoed. I did at times feel invisible and I definitely had to work harder to get to the founders than the boys did. Whatever. I loved it. The tech on show was inspiring, ingenious and fun.

TECHtoberfest Press release_Page_1

Standouts included Derrick the Death Fin – a cardboard video game; Amplified Robot’s VR film of a surgical procedure at St Bart’s Hospital, London; Moteefe’s customised clothing website and Unit9 showcasing VR video and Yifei Chai’s UK government-funded, ground-breaking VR sensory experience.

Derrick the Death Fin is the creation of graffiti artist/vandal extraordinaire Ronzo. Ronzo created a video game of cardboard fish travelling around the globe with the aim of sharing environmental messages about saving our planet. He was inspired by the stop motion Wallace and Gromit animations and created Derrick the Death Fin in the same way – making and moving the characters and sets by hand and suspending them with transparent fishing line from DIY rigs. It’s a cute and heart-warming labour of love showcasing the artist’s creative vision and love of craft, even in the final rendered CGI game is resolutely tech. The craft feeling remains in the blocky fold and cut created graphics and the digital cardboard number counter. Derrick the Death Fin website has a host of goodies including downloadable fold and cut characters so you can re-create the cast.

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Amplified Robot are an agency based in Berwick Street, London. I watched a laparoscopy procedure at St Barts Hospital created from a 6 camera Gopro rig worn by one of the surgical team. Using a Samsung Wifi VR headset (with smartphone inserted to play the video) I was transported to the familiar hospital operating theatre environment, having left my career as an NHS radiographer only three weeks ago. Unfortunately the video isn’t on their website but you can see what the BL Surgical team are up to here.

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https://vimeo.com/130458258

Moteefe aim to help online influencers monetise their following on social media. For those with a large or growing fanbase online, monetising their popularity and engagement with their audience can be difficult. Moteefe facilitate the creation of merchandise allowing influencers to turn their popularity into profits. By designing printed t-shirts using Moteefe, English Author and Journalist Danny Bent sold a stack of t-shirts to fans to help promote his recent Ultimate Hell Week on BBC, thereby gaining traction on social media when fans shared pictures of themselves in the t-shirts, generating more engagement and increased followers, significantly growing his online audience. Nifty in terms of capitalising on popularity, but definitely more to do with the marketing message than the clothing products themselves.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbv9QncAu0E

Unit9, a digital agency located in Hoxton, East London, recently created a video for Fashion Revolution Day in conjunction with BBDO Germany to raise awareness of the consequences of fast, disposable fashion and give shoppers a chance to see the effect cheap fast clothing has on humanity. An interactive digital vending machine experience, it led to 90% of users opting to donate 2euros to the Fashion Revolution Day cause and make a stand against the disaster at Rana Plaza, rather than consume and destruct.

Yifei Chai of Unit9 also presented a fascinating, philosophical and conceptual device for his Pretender Project, which is the first tech interface “empathy tool” designed to engage all five senses so that during VR experiences, for example, when we see a virtual object we can actually feel that object by way of resistance applied through a sensory suit that tracks body movement to understand where and when your body makes “contact” with the virtual object.  The sensory suit also allows one wearer to control the movement of another wearer. I experience this with Yifei, who wore a transmitting (controller) sleeve while I wore a receptor (avatar) sleeve. Yifei moved his hand, transmitting electrical impulses to my sleeve and causing my hand to mimic the movement of Yifei’s. It was pretty mind-blowing. I felt my hand wasn’t my own while reacting to the stimulus. The technology Yifei has developed has far reaching possibilities. He tells me the full sensory suit could be used to download and experience a dancer’s training, or Tiger Woods’ golf swing, for example. It could also be programmed with muscle stimulation training regimes for injury rehabilitation.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=manbPYfXkzE

The device I demo with Yifei is over a year old and the second prototype has already been built. I accept an invitation from Yifei to visit his office/lab/haven of amazingness in Hoxton to try it out, along with a bunch of VR experiences that he and his colleague Yannis at Unit9 have developed. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog post.

On the entertainment side of things there’s a DJ on rotation with a traditional Bavarian band drenched in techno lighting who took to the stage to cover 90’s rock hits. I capture a couple of snaps of Bavarian Stylers at the bar and grab my swag on the way out. Prost!

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Header image: Derrick the Deathfin by Ronzo

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