Shoes are one of those things that can take a leap of faith to buy off the Internet. Sure there are online retailers like Zappos that offer free two-way shipping, but if you're in a pinch to get the right size the first time around, there's a new company that just might help you do it.
Shoefitr, which demoed its technology at Thursday's AlphaLab incubator demo day in Pittsburgh, Pa., is attempting to solve the size problem by feeding shoes through a 3D scanner. This results in the company having a 3D model of the shoe that's accurate to .25mm. These scans are then organized into a database of about 400 shoes (and growing) that can be cross-referenced when consumers are buying from Web retailers that have employed the company's fit finder.
The first site to do this will be online retailer RunningWearhouse.com, which will implement the technology on a selection of its running shoes later this month.
CNET spoke to Shoefitr co-founder, CEO and COO Matt Wilkinson on Thursday about the technology, which he and co-founders Nick End and Breck Fresen (all three Carnegie Mellon graduates) say is patent pending. Wilkinson had been working to create a more affordable 3D scanning technology that is still accurate. The result is what Wilkinson says is similar to how shoe salespeople figure out a customer's preferred fit by looking at what they're already wearing. "At the end of the day, it's a much better approach to finding the solution to the problem. Salespeople ask what kind of shoe they like to wear, and it's a good reference point to that person's foot," Wilkinson said.
As for how that translates to a Web site, users get a pop-up window that asks for the make, model, and size of their current running shoe. As soon as they've filled that out, it provides a recommendation of the best size in the shoe from the sales page, which is all based on how the two scans in its database differ. Wilkinson says the company will eventually offer a way for users to do this from the main page of a shopping site simply by entering their current size or shoe, then getting a list of the most similar, or highly-recommended models based on fit.
One really neat feature within this sizing interface is that you can adjust the shoe by half sizes and see how that changes the fit of the shoe you're thinking about buying. There's both a 2D and a 3D view of this. Between the two, the 3D map is a bit more interesting, as it will change from blue to red to show you how going up or down a size can affect the tightness or looseness of various regions of the shoe.
To get all these variations, Wilkinson says the company did not to go through and get a copy of each shoe to get proper sizing while retaining accuracy.
"There are definitely some brands that tend to run smaller or larger, but that's not consistent within their own shoes," Wilkinson said. "So some models, even in the same brands, you get a shoe manufacturer where there's a half size difference. And another shoe manufacturer where the fit is a shoe size smaller."
Wilkinson and his co-founders are hoping to help customers discover these differences ahead of time, which will save both them, and the online retailer that's selling them, the bother and expense of a return.
You can give Shoefitr's technology a spin on the company's sample checkout page, and later this month on Running Wearhouse's site.