High-tech dressing rooms become virtual reality

New technology should make it possible for customers to solicit opinions from friends remotely.

These are heady days for the lowly fitting room.

In his bestselling 1999 book, "Why We Buy," Paco Underhill, who pioneered the study of retail anthropology, underscores the importance of the dressing room. It's a retail space where, on average, a shopper spends 3.5 very important minutes. "There are more sales lost in the dressing room than perhaps in any other place in the context of the store," says Mr. Underhill, talking by phone from the New York headquarters of his research and consulting firm Envirosell.

Yet little has changed since the fitting room became a feature in department stores more than a century ago. Heeding the cries of consumers, some retailers have begun to invest in cosmetic improvements: a little more space here, more flattering lighting there.

But technology developers have a more dramatic makeover in mind. With new advances unveiled this year, shoppers could one day step into an intelligent dressing room where they'll solicit opinions from friends who aren't actually in the store or forgo the hassle of changing altogether.

A "social retailing" mirror, by digital technology agency IconNicholson, lets customers beam their image to anyone with access to the Internet. It was a hit earlier this year at the National Retail Federation convention in New York. Last month at CeBIt, a consumer technology trade show in Germany, the Heinrich-Hertz-Institut of Berlin exhibited the "virtual mirror," which projects different styles of shoes onto a customer's feet – without the need for a physical shoe. At the same tradeshow last year, Düsseldorf-based Metro Group presented something similar for apparel.

On a recent Thursday, during a demonstration in IconNicholson's New York offices, the three-paneled interactive mirror was balky. It had just been set up, and a preview feature that digitally superimposes to-scale outfits over the viewer wasn't working well. The size and lighting were off. Video images were also slow to stream to the networking website where friends can log on.

These little hiccups can pose major problems when technology is introduced in a store. "If it doesn't work, it isn't neutral," says Mr. Underhill. "It's a negative – meaning, if you walk into a store and there's clearly a piece of technology there and it isn't working, it presents a worse image for the space than if it just didn't exist."

It was also hard to tell how some of the mirror's bells and whistles might play out. Would the music that accompanies outfit changes be atmospheric or irritating?

Yet the technology was undeniably alluring in both concept (trusted fashion advisers always on call) and cool factor (seeing their digital text message commentary pop up on the mirror's surface).

The same goes for the "virtual mirror." Not actually a mirror at all, it projects an image of two shod feet, in 3-D, onto a background screen.

Dressing room razzle-dazzle isn't widely available, though. And it's unclear when it might be. There are no plans for a permanent installation of IconNicholson's mirror. While the "virtual mirror" can only be found in the Adidas shoe store on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

But last month a sample of smart dressing landed, of all places, at the Philadelphia airport. Between terminals A and B, Intellifit, a company that makes body scanners, set up a "virtual fitting room."

The 8-foot kiosk uses technology that was developed in a government lab to screen people for concealed weapons. ("We use it for clothes, they use it for bombs," quips president Rob Weber.) Radio waves scan fully clothed shoppers, recording over 200 measurements. Customers then get a "FitPrint" with their measurements that they can use at Intellifit.com to buy shape-appropriate brands, styles, and sizes. .

So how far off is a smarter dressing room?

Underhill is skeptical. Finding appropriate retail applications for technology can be a challenge, he says. The payoff has to be high for it to be worth the steep cost.

"It will be a long time in coming," predicts Eugene Fram, a professor of marketing at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. If high-tech dressing rooms become more widespread, it could be a while before people are comfortable using them. Aside from the potential discomfort of knowing your image is somewhere on the Internet, let alone submitting oneself to a full body scan, there's the less tech-savvy consumer to consider.

"It's sort of like with ATM machines," says Professor Fram. "It took a period of 10 to 15 years before there was broader acceptance of them."

Even among the target audience – young women for the "social retailing" mirror – the concept may prove more novel than useful.

At the end of the day, "women like to shop," says Patricia Pao, a marketing consultant. "They like to shop with their friends – it's a very communal experience. With this mirror, you take the human aspect out of it."

Additional reporting by Simone Baribeau in New York.

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