At Demo, virtual dressing rooms promise big sales

Swivel, from FaceCake Marketing Technologies, and Webcam Social Shopper, from Zugara, are latest to offer online clothing retailers ways for customers to "try on" clothing from their own homes.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
Swivel, from FaceCake Marketing Technologies, is one of two virtual dressing room products unveiled at Demo Spring 2011. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

PALM DESERT, Calif.--It seems like a no-brainer, but why don't the thousands and thousands of online clothing retailers offer customers a way to stand in front of a Webcam and virtually try things on?

That's a question a couple of companies that presented at the Demo Spring 2011 conference here today were trying to answer. Both Zugara and FaceCake Marketing Technologies showed the audience here forthcoming offerings that would integrate virtual dressing rooms into e-tailers' sites.

Although Demo often showcases companies with related technologies, I don't recall a time in my many years of attending this show that two outfits have taken the stage with more or less the same product. But Zugara, with its Webcam Social Shopper, and FaceCake, with Swivel, both seem intent on building a business around the licensing of these Webcam-based augmented reality changing rooms to retailers.

And while the two companies' approaches differ slightly, they were close enough to make one wonder how both can succeed.

For Zugara, the key selling point of such a system is making it easy for consumers to use. That means Webcam Social Shopper requires no downloads, and essentially interacts directly with a user's PC- or Mac-based Webcam. The customer would stand in front of the camera while on an e-tailer's shopping site and simply "try on" an outfit. The software figures out where the user's face is, and then superimposes a garment on his or her body.

In the onstage demo here, the implementation of this was good, if not great. You could certainly see what, say, a dress looked like on a woman, but you could also see what she was wearing underneath it. That made it look a little sloppy. Still, you would have little trouble imagining whether the garment would look good or not, and in the end, that's the goal.

FaceCake's Swivel is designed to be used either at home, or placed in brick-and-mortar retailers' dressing rooms. In the latter case, it's likely that Swivel would utilize Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing camera to sense the customer's body. But if the buyer is at home, he or she can use a simple PC or Mac Webcam.

Like Swivel, Webcam Social Shopper puts a customer virtually in the clothes they want to try on. Both offer sharing options for quick feedback. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For both, the value proposition seems to be the same: "To make shopping more engaging," as Zugara vice president of product and marketing Jack Benoff put it. Or, as FaceCake's Tom Chamberlin put it, a user who goes into a dressing room is 70 percent more likely to buy something than one who doesn't. So why not help e-tailers take advantage of that math.

With Swivel, users see their body on the screen and when they raise their hand in the air to automatically select a garment type--handbag, tops, dresses, glasses, pants, and so on--from the left side of the screen, the right side then displays a column of possible choices. They point at the exact item they want to try, and the software does the rest: the garment appears superimposed over their body.

With Webcam Social Shopper, the interface is a bit simpler, but it works more or less the same. A user selects a garment, and it is automatically placed digitally over his or her body. The look and feel of the two offerings is different, but the end result is similar.

Another facet that both companies see as essential is to make it easy for shoppers to share the image of what they look like in a garment with their friends. So both services offer a quick sharing option so that they can, with one-click, post an image of themselves "wearing" the dress or pants or other piece of clothing to Facebook or Twitter. The idea here is that with direct feedback from friends, a buyer would feel more comfortable pulling out their credit card.

With both companies relying on a licensing model, it's clear that in order to make money, they'll have to sign up a critical mass of retailer customers. For now, the two are saying little about actual business, but it sounds like neither has worked out any particularly impressive deals. So it remains to be seen if these companies are going to be the ones to bring this technology to the masses.

There are, of course, other competitors. Outfits like Holition, Metaio, Total Immersion, and others seem to be providing pieces of the puzzle, but both Zugara and FaceCake seem to feel they are the only ones with the whole thing.

This is promising technology, but as shown here at Demo, it would seem that both Swivel and Webcam Social Shopper have a ways to go before this is a fully seamless, modern integration. Still, with e-tailers surely eager for ways to boost customer satisfaction and loyalty, it would appear likely that technology like this is going to find a customer base. Whether one of these companies will benefit from that remains to be seen.