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Virtual makeovers: Here's clicking at you, kid

A new Web application just might transform a deadbeat into a diva with the click of a mouse.

A new Web application just might transform a deadbeat into a diva with the click of a mouse.

Makeover Networks, a San Mateo, Calif.-based application service provider (ASP), hopes to be the virtual looking glass that gives visitors a glimpse of themselves in a new hairstyle, lipstick or pair of shades.

The company is announcing tomorrow its new try-it-on site, Makeoverstudio.com, and its partnership with San Mateo, Calif.-based Women.com, which has opened a virtual makeover area in its fashion and beauty channel.

An aspiring beauty can scan in a photo or take a picture with a digital camera and then upload the shot into the virtual studio. Fifteen minutes later, she can work over her image by clicking on different shades of eye shadow or by adding highlights to her hair. Visitors can also try new looks by choosing a similar-looking model.

Such applications have been in development for several years by companies hoping to make the virtual experience more lifelike. Their target markets are online retailers that sell apparel or cosmetics--industries that lose customers because colors and textures do not translate well online or because shoppers have a hard time picturing what the pants or shirt will look like on them.

Because these lucrative industries are always looking for new ways to drive sales, the company is not without competition.

Toronto-based TrueSpectra, which designs imaging software for Web companies such as Gloss.com, iVillage and Land's End, said it plans to launch a product that lets customers scan in photos. In April, it raised $21 million from a group of new investors including Media Technology Ventures, Trinity Ventures and NeoCarta Ventures.

San Francisco-based eMakeover is another site where consumers can use scanned photos to see themselves in a new light.

Behind Makeover Networks are two veterans of digital makeovers: Lori Von Rueden and Chrissie Kremer, the company's co-founders. The pair previously helped launch SegaSoft's Cosmo Virtual Makeover, software heralded as one of the best-selling products geared toward women. But they hope to make their latest product even more successful by offering it on the Web for free.

"Colors are hard"
As an ASP, Makeover Networks will license its technology to retailers and companies focusing on accessories, cosmetics and hairstyles. Theoretically, a department store could use the software at in-store kiosks so a shopper could take a picture, test different fashions, and store the photo for later use online.

Still, industry analysts and executives say the technology needs to improve before there can be widespread adoption.

"The major hurdles to this technology are color--colors are hard to communicate online--and user sophistication," said Evie Dykema, senior analyst for Forrester Research's online retail group. "This requires a certain amount of energy and tech savvy for consumers to upload a picture of themselves."

Many digital makeover applications have not made the experience easy enough for the consumer and retailer yet, said Beauty.com founder Roger Barnett.

"How you can automatically map out the person's face is sort of an elusive element in the current technology," said Barnett, who has not yet chosen a makeover technology for the beauty site.

"If you're looking to be a large-scale site, it's not economical to map every one of your customer's photographs individually," Barnett said. "The key is for the computer to automatically map the image. No one's figured out how to do that yet."

For its part, Makeover Networks said it has a patent pending with its partner Internet Pictures, or iPix, to fully automate the process for businesses and their customers. Meanwhile, the company optimizes customer photos itself.

"Our success is not going to be our downfall. We can double today's capacity in 24 hours," said Christy Callahan, spokeswoman for Makeover Networks.

The privately held company, founded in 1999, has raised about $3 million from investors such as iPix, Draper Richards and Venture Management Associates.