Afraid the clothes you buy online won't fit? Get help from a robotic mannequin

Clothing is currently the largest single online retail sector, estimated to be worth $26 billion a year in the US alone; yet only 7% of clothing is bought online. The fact that consumers cannot try on clothes before buying also results in a very high rate of returned merchandise (over 40% for some types of fitted clothing) and associated costs for retailers. Fits.me aims to reduce returns and increase sales by allowing buyers to see clothes on a mannequin with the exact dimensions of the buyer’s body. It does this by using robotic mannequins with artificial muscles that can simulate the shape and size of any body.

Currently, Fits.me only provides male robot mannequins, but a female version should be available by the end of the summer.

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Fits.me is one of the 20 (mainly European) startups pitching in TheNextWeb conference startup rally in Amsterdam this week. The company started a year ago in Estonia, and the robotics technology comes from Estonia’s Tallinn University of Technology. The mannequin robots can take on up to 100,000 different body shapes, but in practice many fewer than this is needed, since human beings tend to come in a more limited range of shapes and sizes.

Fits.me works with a German company called Human Solutions, which provides a database of the most common body dimensions taken from 3D imaging of tens of thousands of people. A selection of target shapes are chosen for the robot. Not every item of clothing in every size needs to be physically tried on the robot. Instead, sizing samples are put on the robot for each of the target body shapes, and the result is photographed. On average, you need 4 garments from a brand to establish the sizing. Big brands like Gap will have 10-15 fit samples. Most clothing brands have 4-7.When a buyer wants to see a size on his own body shape, mathematical algorithms are used to manipulate the most similar image of the robot. This is combined with information about the physical properties of the garment and how it takes on shape (some materials are more clingy or stretchy than others) to show the user a simulation of the garment on his body shape.

In a trial with a German retailer, Fits.me increased sales 3 times and reduced returns by 28%. The company just signed UK shirt maker Hawes and Curtis as its first commercial customer. Fits.me gets a percentage of revenue from sales.

The company doesn’t seem to have any direct competitors, although there are plenty of companies that provide styling or sizing advice (see figure to the left). Based in Estonia, Fits.me launched in May 2009 and has funding of 1.3 million euros via a combination of EU research grants and private funding.

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