By  on October 25, 2010

CHICAGO — Start with an armadillo. Then dress it up and take its picture. That’s the latest approach to the digital dressing room, and the “armadillo” in question is a robotic mannequin developed by Fits.me Biorobotics.

London shirtmaker Hawes & Curtis’ Web site has offered Fits.me for men’s wear since April and will expand it to women’s apparel next month. U.K. retailer John Smedley launched the virtual try-on tool for men recently and plans to introduce it for women next year. The goal is to reduce disappointment for online shoppers and costly returns for the merchants.

Other retailers have tried computer-generated 3-D animation or augmented reality. Lands’ End led the march in 1998 with My Virtual Model. More recently, Tobi.com introduced Fashionista, which superimposes a photo of a garment onto live video of a shopper from her Web cam, much in the way she might hold up a dress against her body in front of a full-length mirror.

The Fits.me robotic torso’s armadillo-like moving surface plates can contort to 100,000 body shapes, driven by algorithms drawn from more than 30,000 three-dimensional human body scans, said Heikki Haldre, chief executive officer of Fits.me, a startup based in Estonia. The technology was developed in conjunction with Estonia’s Tartu University, Tallinn Technical University and Human Solutions GmbH.

Fits.me takes about 2,000 photos of each item of apparel on the mannequin to correspond to the various possible combinations of garment sizes and shoppers’ measurements. Fits.me photographs five to seven pieces per brand instead of a whole collection because it assumes sizing is consistent within a brand. “It would be a logistical nightmare if every single garment should be shipped for photography,” said Haldre.

Antony Comyns, head of e-commerce at Hawes & Curtis, said 18 percent of male shoppers who place an online order do so after using the sizing tool; further, the sizing tool has reduced returns due to wrong size by 0.25 percent. Possible challenges may involve shoppers’ ability to measure themselves precisely but Comyns said the potential to improve customer service and increase sales is what’s so attractive, especially when shipping abroad. The ability for shoppers in other countries to visualize how a garment will drape on a mannequin that mimics their personal body proportions greatly reduces the fear of “what am I going to do if I have to send it all the way back” to the U.K.

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