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FRIDAY, October 07, 2022
Amazon using photos to make T-shirts, turning data into custom products

Amazon using photos to make T-shirts, turning data into custom products

WEDNESDAY, January 06, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO - For the second time in a month, Amazon has launched a product that needs photos of your body. It says it's using them to help you become more attractive, not to amass compromising photos of you in various states of undress.

The first was the Halo fitness app, which requires you to strip down to your underwear for a 360-degree body scan to determine your body fat percentage. The idea was to help you work toward a better body, though the app did not do a good job of explaining how.

The latest is somewhat less invasive. Made for You is a new Amazon service that snaps a front and side photo in form-fitting (but body-covering) clothes to produce a custom-fitted T-shirt. The reason, according to Amazon, is to remove the cumbersome step of selecting a size.

Like the Halo, Made for You uses your smartphone's camera to take the pictures, uploading them to Amazon's servers and using software to extract the relevant data about your unique shape, from head to somewhere below your hips. Amazon says the photos are never viewed by people and are deleted after use.

(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The photos taken with smartphones or special cameras are a growing source of information for fitness programs, fashion companies and more. Fitness apps such as Naked use their own expensive cameras to create 3-D body scans for measuring and tracking weight loss or muscle gain. Fashion brands and apps are adding virtual try-on options for clothing, including the Zeekit app, which takes a photo of your body in a tank top and shorts to overlay virtual shirts and pants.

Because Amazon has already seen me in far less for the Halo body-fat scan, I decided to let it have a go at making a custom shirt. The process walks you through a number of options on the main Amazon app, from color and length to neck shape and fabric. It's not only using a couple of photos - you also have to enter your weight and height.

Then it creates what Amazon calls your "virtual body double," a slightly dowdy computer-generated doppelganger (sorry, fake me) who wears a version of the shirt so you can see what it looks like. That final pattern is used to sew your garment somewhere in the United States, and any photographs of your body are deleted from Amazon's servers after the virtual model is made, according to the company.

So what does a custom-made $25 T-shirt look and feel like? I'm not a professional T-shirt reviewer, yet, but the final result was a cleanly made, appropriately dull top. The fit seemed on par with a normal small shirt. The only sign it was custom made was the overly literal flare around the hips and my name on the tag. (You can choose any custom message up to nine characters long.)

An Amazon Made For You custom T-shirt has a custom message on the tag. MUST CREDIT: Photo by RC Rivera

The real tell for a T-shirt is how it holds up over time. After three wears, a wash and a trip through the dryer, the Amazon T-shirt's quality seems solid so far. The stitching is clean, and the shirt kept its shape and size. There are probably benefits to having the custom option for anyone who struggles with traditional sizes, but it seems like an unnecessary step (and expense) for anyone fine with off-the-rack sizes.

The company has dabbled in, and then closed down, a fashion product that photographed people before. The $199 Echo Look was a much-covered, seemingly little-purchased oddity that Amazon launched in 2017. An oblong camera that captured and saved photos and short videos of you in various outfits, it used a combination of artificial intelligence and "advice from fashion specialists" to judge how you looked and give advice. Amazon announced in May that it was discontinuing the Look hardware. But don't worry, you can still take photos of your outfit in the main Amazon Shopping app for feedback like, "Add a pair of black heeled booties."

Pricey extra equipment is becoming less necessary for this type of technology. Smartphone cameras are getting better, and advances in image-processing technology make it possible to tease out more accurate 3-D measurements from 2-D images. Apple's newest Pro iPhone has added lidar - complex sensors that use laser lights to map a scene - which could make similar images even more accurate.

Years of offering biometrics to regular consumers may make what sounds like a risky proposition less alarming. Most smartphone owners have become accustomed to trusting their devices with sensitive personal information about their bodies, using their faces or fingerprints to unlock devices quickly.

But more than faces, the detailed shape of our bodies can feel revealing and personal. Especially when it's not being used as some kind of authentication with the extra layers of security and encryption that biometrics promise. The companies asking for body photographs and videos think the payoff is worth the exposure.

The MTailor app has been using smartphone cameras to customize clothes, primarily men's clothing, for six years. The service uses a technique similar to Amazon's Made for You. Instead of drafting a family member to take your picture, you rest the camera on the ground and turn around for a video. The software will correct for the low, somewhat unflattering, angle. MTailor's clothes are sewn in Asia, then shipped to the buyer.

Miles Penn, MTailor's chief executive, says he can see why Amazon would start with T-shirts. The item is easier to fit than, say, pants or a suit, and more forgiving of any measurement errors.

If successful, the shirts could be the first in a line of clothing items from the company. Amazon has struggled to break into fashion the same way it has with other products. Unlike something utilitarian like a battery, fashion is harder to replicate with generic Amazon brands.

Virtual tailoring also offers some obvious benefits during a pandemic. It's a way to get properly fitted clothing without a trip to the tailor, where social distancing is impossible, or having to try on clothes in crowded retail stores. Unfortunately, the same predicament that makes virtual clothes shopping appealing also renders new clothes pretty useless unless they're sweatpants.

"Not that many people, frankly, are buying suits if they can't go to weddings or anywhere outside, so that's been tough," said Penn.