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  Stores are impersonal and finding the right style in the right size can be slow and frustrating due to outdated and inaccurate inventory systems.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

Ground-Breaking Augmented Fashion Experience by Steven Tai and ILMxLAB at London Fashion Week

It’s no mean feat creating a truly unique Fashion Week experience.  The traditional catwalk and presentation formats are tried (or perhaps tired) and tested and provide what could be considered limited scope for in-depth storytelling and effectively conveying a brand’s message in our tech-engaged world.  Considering the concept of engagement – capturing the attention of an audience and involving them in an experience and “moving” them – how does the traditional fashion show stack up?  Limply, it would seem.  The irresistible pull of digital content and taking part in online conversations on Instagram and other platforms pulls people in the front row of shows into the digital world, as if the physical one around them doesn’t exist.

In this hybrid physical and digital world, what does the fashion show of our (immediate) future look like?  Steven Tai and his collaborators for AW18 say it looks like this: a physical showcase of the collection on live models who intermingle with an augmented digital avatar being generated in real time using CGI, who is also wearing the collection.  It’s a true blurring of physical and digital worlds – a mixed reality.  But why is this important?  Why explore the bringing together of digital and physical realms?

We live in a world where we create constant digital representations of ourselves and share them with the world.  We augment ourselves with filters and we animate our faces to imagine ourselves as different characters – not unlike the way that Steven Tai’s collaborators ILMxLab, a division of Lucas film, tells stories by creating characters in contextual places using CGI.  What does this creation of digital characters in a physical world look like, and how can that be harnessed to present fashion?  What would that look and feel like?

In the case of the Steven Tai presentation, it involved an actor in a “mocap” (or motion capture) suit which tracked her movements while walking and posing in order to render her body movements in real time as an avatar on the stage screen, immediately behind the physical models.  Her avatar therefore appeared as though she was interacting with the live models on the stage, although she was physically not present.  Different garments were rendered onto her body in real time, creating a carousel of changing outfits as she moved through the space, around the physical models.  The presentation proposed the concept of layering a digital world over a physical one, which strikes me as a social commentary on how we live increasingly through our social media personas and online interactions and how we wish to augment how we are perceived in the digital, and perhaps soon physical, world.

Actor in mocap suit creating the digital avatar seen in the video below amongst the physical models

During the presentation, in order for the actor’s avatar to “wear” the Steven Tai garments they had to be digitised in advance and then rendered in real time on her moving avatar body, to demonstrate the realistic and accurate drape and movement of the fabric.  The process of designing and creating the collection was an interesting one from the point of view of designer Steven Tai.  His appetite for technology and experimentation demonstrates a rare trust and brave approach to fashion design, where his desire to use certain textiles and create certain silhouettes gave way to the technological limitations, allowing the rendering and appearance of the garments digitally to inform their creation physically.  It’s tricky to convey just how at odds this is with the way fashion designers have been trained.  I say this as a graduate of London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, where the teaching emphasises a dogged belief and dedication to achieving your creative and aesthetic goals and striving for your ideals.  Experimenting with new technologies and telling a fashion story that incorporates these new enablers requires a far more dynamic and collaborative attitude.  One that Steven clearly has and that has allowed him an unusual freedom to express himself through the use of the technology.

Another key reason to utilise the LiveCGX technology within the presentation was its capability to create an entire world within the digital and physical space.  Through the imagery on the screen behind the stage, we were transported to Steven’s native Macau by way of a CGI urban landscape, blending a street scene, complete with awnings, flowing gently in the digital breeze, flanked in jungle-like surroundings with softly falling leaves.  Macau was a pivotal inspiration for the collection, which as Matthew Drinkwater of the Fashion Innovation Agency – orchestrators of the collaboration – pointed out after the show, meant that the audience could experience Steven’s inspiration and see how it translated into the collection before them, rather than read about it on a press release.

steventai AW18 collection 

The presentation felt like an invitation to consider the future of fashion.  A chance to ask how fashion should be consumed and sold – and perhaps more importantly, worn.  Will we extend our augmented selves from mobile devices to our physical space through glasses that effectively overlay a digital layer onto our physical world?  Will we chose to change our clothing (or rather how others wearing augmentation glasses perceive our clothing) throughout the day at will?  If so, what is the role of the designer, and indeed of physical clothes?  How would we consume such fashion?  Would we buy renders of clothing?  What impact could that have on the wider industry and what are the potential environmental benefits of reduced physical garment production?  These are all interesting philosophical questions that steer us toward re-imagining the future of fashion.

It is worth noting that the Fashion Innovation Agency, based at London College of Fashion, disseminate the outcomes and discoveries of the experimental fashion presentations they facilitate to cohorts of fashion students whose concept of what fashion can and should be is still in the making.  These students are the future of the industry, so departing university with an affinity for, and understanding of, emerging technologies, suggests that their use will gain prevalence and move towards widespread industry uptake in coming years.

Mohen Leo and Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLAB, Steven Tai and Matthew Drinkwater of FIA

The question I arrive at after seeing the clear benefits of this mode of storytelling and audience engagement is, “How does this contribute to fashion business commercially?”  Can this content be used for online sales?  It’s likely true that such technologies and methods of presentation will take off when clear financial benefits for brands are proven.  Steven Tai hypothesises that he can reach a global audience by allowing viewers to attend his shows simply by wearing a VR or Mixed reality headset and entering his fashion presentation remotely.  Similarly, their avatars could ‘try on’ the collection using the same the technology and purchase through e-commerce.  Nay-sayers might comment that people would never purchase something they haven’t physically seen or tried on, but then isn’t that exactly what cynics said of Natalie Massenet’s bold concept for a web-based clothing store, which became the industry-changing e-commerce retailer ‘Net-a-porter’?

The team behind the show: steventai, London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency, ILMxLAB and The GREAT Britain Campaign