Imagine that instead of setting up for weeks’ worth of fashion photography, complete with models, hundreds of outfits, hair stylists, and makeup artists, you create a virtual catalogue based on computer generated models, photos of body parts, and photographs of clothing items and accessories that customers can interact with. No glamorous models. No famous photographers. No make-up artists. No hair stylists. No expensive studios. Sound surreal? It is already a reality – a virtual one – but a reality nonetheless. Looklet is a company that has developed and delivered the technology that makes this scenario possible.
Technology – A Walk Back In Time
Ever since my days of working in an engineering software company, I have been keenly interested in seeing how fast CAD and imaging innovations would develop and how far they would progress. First came 2D wireframe modeling, which rapidly progressed to 3D surface and solid models. Eventually, integrated CAD modeling software enabled mechanical engineers to provide detailed “walk throughs” of ships, buildings, and car designs. The process of “rendering” further enabled engineers to create much more realistic looks for their designs. The associated rendering software, which blended realistic surfaces, textures, shading, and light reflections on the engineering models, required very expensive computer software and servers – often costing upwards of $150,000 or more. The rendering process could easily take a few days before the software completed its magic. And while impressive in their day, the resultant animated “walk throughs” of the objects could be rather slow and amateurish compared to the simplest of today’s video games.
Crude “working” models of machinery depicting the movement of parts soon followed on the heels of rendered CAD models. Eventually, such technology became available on lower-priced PCs via the ever-improving AutoCad software, which caused quite a disruption in the CAD software and engineering workstation marketplace.
Also arriving onto the scene in the early 90s was a new program designed for the Macintosh which some of us were experimenting with called… “Photoshop.” It promised to do for raster images (pixels), what CAD had done for vector data. While Photoshop became an immediate hit with graphics designers, those dabbling with early digital photography were rumored to have a keen interest in the application as well.
When CAD and imaging technology progressed enough in 1993, we witnessed the ground-breaking Jurassic Park movie that caused most of us to doubt our senses and significantly strained our ability to distinguish the real from the virtual. It gave the general public some insights into the myriad of technology advances that had been occurring behind the scenes in the engineering and imaging software fields.
Increases in computer processing power and storage capacity, rapidly falling prices, combined with improvements in software technology, have created an ideal environment for computer generated images to rapidly approach their real world equivalents. The movie Avatar took a tremendous leap forward in improving the ability to make the virtual appear real. With each new high tech Hollywood film, we see the technology improve and the animated creatures, people, and scenes become more lifelike. At some juncture, much of what is virtual will likely be indistinguishable from what we consider real. Scary but true. I would suggest that this has profound implications for the world of photography that many of us have not fully comprehended.
The High Tech World Of Fashion Merchandising
We are now seeing a variety of similar CAD and imaging technologies making inroads in the world of fashion merchandising, an area that has traditionally provided good incomes to both photographers and models. Looklet’s LookCreator technology enables fashion merchandisers to create an extensive online clothing catalog based on a factory-type approach, reducing costs and time, while also improving customer’s flexibility of viewing the clothing on models of their choosing. Vente-Privee and H&M are two companies making extensive use of Looklet’s technology.
Looklet’s approach has significant appeal to clothing retailers, since the creation of a catalogue – either online or paper based – has traditionally represented a huge investment of both dollars and time. Not only is the creation of the catalog costly, but the time associated with the process can also be a gaiting factor for new clothing line introductions, since the traditional process would require a myriad of photo shoots. Looklet also enables clothing retailers to bring new items to market and refresh their catalogs faster and at lower costs.
How does Looklet accomplish its magic? While the company is loath to disclose the secrets of its intellectual property, it appears to be using a combination of the following:
• Photos of people’s body parts (eyes, ears, mouths, etc.)
• 3D CAD models of mannequins
• Various layering software that enables you to combine the above to create various looks
• Some image editing and rendering software that blend the various parts together to look more realistic
• Photos of clothing items
• A user interface that enables customers to select models by look or body style, and mix and match clothing items and accessories on them
Photos of clothing items are matched to the physiques and poses of the various models. Looklet provides an inventory of models to the clothing retailers, along with software that will enable shoppers to customize both the models and their clothing outfits. Thus shoppers can select a body shape – idealistic or perhaps closer to their own appearance – and create a myriad of looks and styles quickly and easily in ways that would be cost-prohibitive with traditional static photography catalogs. Don’t like the model’s hair style or color? Select another. Want a different pair of pants to go with the shirt? Drag them onto the model. While Looklet doesn’t completely eliminate the need for photographers and models, it drastically reduces their role and importance in the process.
While shoppers may give up a bit relative to some of the more artistic catalog photography backdrops, they ultimately gain through lower costs and more flexibility to see the clothing they are considering outfitted on models of their choice. Some catalogs even offer the opportunity for people to upload their own photos and better understand how an article of clothing might look on their frames, vs. that of a model which bears little resemblance to themselves. Despite some of the more sophisticated computer technologies that may be behind Looklet’s product offerings, the concept is actually borrowed from a very old and extremely low-tech concept very familiar to children – paper dolls that can have multiple clothing outfits attached and detached by merely bending some paper tabs.
What Are Some Of The Criticisms Of Looklet Technology?
Artificiality of the models
Some describe the look the models as being fake. This applies both to the models’ faces and body parts. I have seen a number of Looklet models that span the gamut from the “I can’t tell that this is not a real person” to some which appear cartoonish. Much of this depends on the scale of the model and how each was constructed. If you are looking at a full body shot of a model, you are much more likely not to focus as much on the details of the eyes or the skin. I suspect some people, unless told, might not even notice that they are observing a Looklet model. If you are examining a photo of a model from only the waist-up and zoomed in a bit closer, you may have an easier time determining that it is a virtual model. Clearly there is room to improve the technology. But you can bet that it will get better with time.
One of the most appealing aspects of traditional clothing catalogues has been their artistic photography. With Looklet, gone are the smiling skiers on the sunny slopes, the adoring couple walking hand-in-hand down a colorful trail in autumn, and the attractive model attending an elegant cocktail party surrounded by a handful of admiring suitors. Catalogs may still feature a few of these stylish photos, but the vast majority will be replaced by Looklet models.
Looklet foregoes the usual appealing artistic scenery and perhaps the visceral appeal such imagery may have upon our impulse to buy clothing. How much this may detract from a customer’s purchasing desires is difficult to measure. What Looklet lacks in its virtual approach must be weighed against the lower costs, increased flexibility, and control it places in the hands of the customer. Some clients are obviously betting that the lower costs and flexibility provided by Looklet technology outweigh the loss of the artistic aspects of catalog production.
What Does The Future Hold?
For clothing companies that rely heavily on catalog sales and seeking to provide a better buying experience to their customers, Looklet offers a very intriguing solution. Given what I have seen relative to the improvements in CAD and imaging technology, I think that reliance on technologies such as those provided by Looklet will only increase.
Now this may strike some as being too mechanical and running against the “art” of photography. I don’t think high-end glamor photography that relies on name brand models and photographers will disappear completely, but one merely needs to look at the meteoric rise of stock photo agencies to realize how much businesses are willing to forego expensive, time consuming private photo shoots in favor of quality, low-cost stock images. Each potential client will have to carefully evaluate its needs as well as the costs and benefits of traditional photo shoots vs. those provided by Looklet’s technology.
I believe Looklet will continue to benefit from cost containment concerns, improving software technology, and falling technology prices. The ability to select models, body shapes, and outfit ensembles also offers customers many new opportunities not possible with traditional online or paper-based catalogs. And the same technology improvements that produced stunningly realistic 10 foot blue characters in the movie Avatar, will eventually enable Looklet and other companies to create virtual models indistinguishable from their human counterparts.
What do you think? Do you struggle with the concept of some photographers and models being replaced by virtual reality software technology?