There’s a new kind of customization trend taking hold, and the key is already in everyone’s pockets and purses.
Advances in mobile technology are driving a wave of personalized products. Smartphones have become so powerful, and their cameras so good, that they can do much more than take selfies and fill an Instagram feed. A rising tide of companies are putting these devices to work as scanners to enable bespoke products.
Anyone with a phone can scan their face, feet or body, and order up personalized glasses, sandals and apparel.
And the opportunity is massive. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who own smartphones has risen to 77 percent, up from 35 percent in 2011.
Companies like Wiiv have gotten the memo, and they’re putting the phone camera at the core of their businesses.
“We use mobile apps to snap pictures of your feet, turn these images into 3-D models and then use these models to produce custom fit insoles and sandals,” said Aron Tremble, a former HP Inc. executive who now runs marketing and partnerships for Wiiv.
“We exist because we’ve proven in the lab and the market that when footwear is made to the exact specifications of your feet, with just the right biomechanical support in just the right places, you will feel, move and live better,” he said.
Wiiv’s proprietary system connects mobile images and 3-D printing to create custom insoles and sandals on demand and according to individual specifications. To date, the company has produced seven apps and six custom footwear products across its own brand, as well as partners. The company has raised $7.5 million across three funding rounds, according to Crunchbase.
As for which particular mobile technologies are fueling Wiiv’s business, Tremble singled out elements of computational photography, such as chips, lenses and software. “Without this, we could not manage intelligent capture, measurement and modeling,” he said. “Our latest apps sense what is in the frame, warns customers when the composition isn’t right, detects problems with images in real time, and snaps the picture when it looks good.
“Think mobile check deposit translated to your feet,” he said.
At this point, Wiiv is eyeing the 3-D camera movement, and Tremble seems excited about Apple’s TrueDepth, which made its debut last year in the iPhone X, and Intel Real Sense. Both camera systems can capture spatial depth. Consumers may be familiar with the technology, whether they know it or not. It’s part of the reason iPhone portraits can offer depth of field, showing the subject in crystal-clear focus against a blurred background.
Apple and Google have made depth of field a hot camera feature, and that could be key for Wiiv and its ilk, which require accurate mapping of the human foot in three dimensions. However, the company is waiting to support the tech until it becomes even more commonplace.
The insole maker may be carefully watching TrueDepth’s development, but other companies are racing to integrate with it.
New custom eyewear start-up King Children, which launched out of stealth this week, made its debut with integration for Apple’s latest camera hardware. After all, properly fitting eyeglasses must account for things like flat or protruding nose bridges, different face shapes and other physical features. However, 3-D-mapping a human face is no easy feat, which is why the company needed the latest camera and sensor tech with the biggest likelihood of mass adoption.
The start-up hits the scene with a lofty mission. “Today’s one-size-fits-all approach overlooks millions of different facial features and structures representative of our world today,” said Sahir Zaveri, cofounder and chief executive officer, in a statement. “At King Children, we embody the values of diversity, inclusivity, creativity and self-expression, a culture that embraces our community and our infinite differences.”
It’s a timely message of inclusion that arrives during an especially divisive climate in the U.S. But cultural complexities aside, the technical challenge of delivering on that promise looks just as complicated.
“With the front-facing camera, it adds an infrared emitter and proximity sensor that we use to 3-D scan faces with submillimeter accuracy,” Zaveri said in an interview. “From the virtual try-on experience, we collect raw data from the True Depth system and have a comprehensive analytical process in place to garner an accurate measurement for every face.”
The process involves a lot of data processing and interpreting work in the back end. Ultimately, the goal is to make the shopping experience more like a design collaboration.
Customers can pick and tweak their own glass frames across an array of specifications — from the scale of the frame, lens height and lens width, to nose bridge, temple length and pantoscopic tilt, among other details. And, of course, they can choose colors, shapes and lenses, including UVA protection, polarization and prescription.
“We’re putting the latest technology innovations into the hands of everyday e-commerce shoppers through their favorite piece of hardware — their phones,” said Zaveri, who has raised more than $2 million for King Children. “As an industry, we’re seeing a trend of augmented reality going mobile, but we’re taking it one step further by embedding elevated capabilities into the core of everything we do.”
On the apparel front, some companies are relying on iPhones or Android devices for scanning purposes for things like fit.
Typically, the attempt to accurately read a shopper’s size involves some cumbersome element. That can range from taking traditional measurements, answering lengthy questionnaires, visiting a location with a magic mirror, or some combination. Start-ups like 3-D Look are using the camera as a body scanner, along with AI and a voluminous database of 200,000 fit profiles.
Getting the wrong size is annoying in general. But for a custom garment, an ill fit can be especially disheartening and costly for the consumer and the retailer. Custom men’s wear maker MTailor thinks that smartphones can prevent that from happening: The six-year-old company believes that today’s smartphone cameras are 20 percent more accurate than a professional human tailor.
By recruiting customers (and their devices) as designers and scanners, merchants are letting them participate in the process. The approach also gives shoppers something traditional retail can’t: individuality and uniqueness. That matters in today’s retail, especially for an Instagram generation that doesn’t want to look like everyone else.
For companies, customization via the cell-phone camera offers a way to connect directly with shoppers and give them a personalized product. Shoppers get something else as well — an insurance policy protecting their distinct look.