I’m standing on a black platform in tight black clothing, standing impossibly still while four scanners with red sensors descend down tall metal beams, taking my measurements.
The scanner — on loan from the U.S. Army — costs a quarter of million dollars. Until recently, it was one of few ways to create a realistic 3D avatar based on an existing human being. The Army uses it to create better fitting uniforms for its troops. However, with the advancement of smaller, cheaper scanners, this giant machine is slowly falling into obsolescence.
Body Labs believes that the proliferation of sensors like Google Tango, Occipital Structure, Microsoft Kinect, and Intel Realsense will make taking 3D measurements consumer-friendly, thus ushering in a slew of new health, gaming, and fashion applications.
“You could compare your body week to week; compare your body volume; compare your body to the cross trainer athlete; or heat map the fine detail of what is changing in your body,” says Body Labs CEO Bill O’Farrell.
In the not too distant future, he says, you’ll be able to track your body weight through a digital avatar based on your own body scan.
The body scanning, in turn, will give rise to a host of gaming- and health-related applications. Naturally, Body Labs has an idea for one such application: a tool that turns uploads of 3D scans into full digital avatars.
Currently, the company has two projects: Body Hub and Body Kit. The former is a repository for the 2,300 body scans that people have uploaded to its site, the latter is a developer API.
Starting today, the updated API will also be able to measure the volume and surface area of any body. Designers will also now be able to download 3D bodies complete with a Mixamo rig — a template for how your avatar, once it has been scanned, should move around in a virtual world. his rig is sort of like a virtual skeleton for your digital avatar.
Being able to download an avatar that already has a rig is a time saver for game designers, but more interesting is Body Lab’s addition of body volume to the list of measurements it calculates.
“There is research out there that says heart disease can be linked to certain body volumes or the ratio of your torso to your overall body volume,” says O’Farrell.
Currently, getting a detailed look at your body composition is a difficult process, and it can be expensive depending on the method you use to get it. Some of these include pinching various parts of your body with calipers to test Body Mass Index (BMI); sending electrical currents through your body to see how fast they travel (fat is more conductive than muscle); or getting an x-ray from a medical professional to measure your bone density and body composition. All of these methods take a lot more time and money than a body scan with a tablet-mounted sensor does. Plus, the affordability of compact sensors allows for more scans, more often, allowing you to track changes in your body.
Body volume could also tell you more about your body composition than your BMI, which only takes into account height and weight. Body Labs says 3D scans consider the way fat and muscle are distributed on your body. Also, the company’s database accounts for age and uses its trove of body data to determine a person’s overall health.
That could be especially important for health app developers down the road. Imagine a health app that not only lets you upload your own avatar, but is also able to compare your body to others. Perhaps this is scary prospect at face value, but over time, access to this kind of data could do wonders for normalizing a range of body types. It could also be an invaluable tool for doctors once medical apps start blossoming.
For the moment, Body Kit only helps app developers add the ability to upload 3D avatars through their app, but this summer O’Farrell says the company plans on linking the API to Body Hub.
Body Labs was co-founded by Brown University professor Michael Black, currently director of perceiving systems at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.
For my part, my body scan was an interesting revelation. My body, it turns out, is neither as amazing nor as hideous as I sometimes think it is. What’s more, I now have a realistic way to track whatever it is I’m not satisfied with. If nothing else, it’s helping my body dysmorphic disorder to slowly dissipate, while I focus on a body that’s more real.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of Body Labs co-founder Michael Black. An earlier version of this article referred to him as Matt Black.