Three-dimensional body scanning has been a potentially lucrative technology for the fashion industry for decades: A 1999 New York Times headline stated, “Body Scanner Replaces The Tailor’s Tape Measure.”

The incentives are obvious: Reduce waste and increase profit by making clothes a customer is more likely to buy. So why haven’t body scans obliviated the need for alterations, e-commerce returns and perhaps even fit models?

“Even in the late 2000s, it was really fickle — the data you would get out was horrendous,” said Greg Moore, co-founder and CEO of body scanning products company Fit3D. “When retailers would put scanners in stores, it was challenging because they didn’t have enough info to use those scans. No one understood how to match body scan with jeans, and the machines went out of calibration really easily. So it was a really expensive process to capture the data.”

With a wave of new releases this month, 3D body scanning might finally be reaching critical mass. And by now, the climate is a bit more hospitable. Brands have begun using digital tools earlier in the design process, so they might be ready to understand the information, Moore said.

The accelerated timeline also might be thanks to Amazon, which made an estimated $70 million-or-so purchase in October of a 3D body model company, Body Labs, that only validated the potential of the technology.

Today, Fit3D announces the launch of BodyBlock AI, a range of services for the garment and apparel industries utilizing the company’s 500,000 body scans collected using its Fit3D ProScanner. Services for the fashion industry include size studies of specific demographics (like showing the range of heights and weights of “petite women”), and insights that show real bodies and measurements that can be integrated into design programs. So, for example, if a brand’s target customer is a size 12 petite woman, the company can provide representative models and multiple bodies to validate the fit of the patterns.

The range of new options suggest that fit-tech is quickly becoming the new normal.

On Aug. 1, Naked Labs Inc. announced it would begin shipping its $1,395 at-home, full-length body scanning mirror, after a $14 million funding round. For now, the scanner is largely being marketed for its fitness-tracking capabilities, but company founders are keeping a clear eye toward “all the objects you interact with on a daily basis,” including fashion design, said co-founder and COO Ed Sclater. “The data [used in fashion design] is so old and based on averages — but no single person is ‘average.’”

Coming later this month, Start Today, Japan’s largest fashion e-commerce business, will bring its Zozo “measurement system,” which utilizes a polka-dot suit to take measurements, to more than 70 countries. And Fit-Any is a startup that uses a “Fitting Bootie” to measure feet, collect data and make brand recommendations. (The bootie is equipped with pressure sensors, like those on a keyboard, to map out the foot.)

3DLook uses two pictures to create a body scan, from which it can make size recommendations based on individual brand size charts. In mid-July, the company announced a $1 million investment round.

Topology is a bespoke eyewear brand that uses a smartphone to fit and preview glasses. “Traditionally, 3D scanning has been very hard to do because the hardware on everyone’s computer and phone is limited to a simple camera,” said Topology CEO Eric Varady. “It will rapidly become easier and more prevalent across retailers with the introduction of depth sensors, as we see on the iPhone X.”

And others, which were using Body Labs technology, had to rethink their business entirely when it was snapped up by Amazon. Bespoke menswear brand Eison Triple Thread, for example, has turned to a customer’s Spotify playlist to inform its style guidance (and is back to using analog measurements to tackle fit).

Although the Amazon purchase of Body Labs heightened the urgency in the market, Moore said the acquisition was “fantastic” for Fit3D, which sells its “less than $8,500” devices mainly in health and wellness centers (they can also be rented). “That really scared a lot of brands and retailers, because they were also all looking at Body Labs for the exact same services we are offering — but right at the time they were going to purchase services, Body Labs got swept off the market by Amazon,” said Moore. That essentially made it far easier for Fit3D to sell its services.

In May, Amazon offered to give some people a $250 Amazon gift card in exchange for 10 body measurements over the course of 20 weeks, ostensibly to measure how bodies change over time.

“They had the exact same problems all these other companies had. They just didn’t have enough data to run the algorithms they said they could run,” Moore said. “Amazon is saying, ‘Crap, we need more data.’”

It’s also not a stretch to imagine that Amazon could link Body Labs technology with its Echo Look devices, which already allow customers to take pictures of themselves at home to amass more “data.”

Fit3D has a marketplace for custom clothing brands, but some are skeptical of the feasibility of using body scans to make clothes that compete with couture.

Two years ago, “fashion platform” Cala aimed to use 3D body scanning to create made-to-order garments designed by designers and influencers. But after a collaboration with rapper Wiz Khalifa, the company changed course, said Cala co-founder and CEO Andrew Wyatt.

“[Khalifa’s team] told us they don’t have returns, so for them, custom fit is not something they were interested in,” Wyatt said. Now, the company is focusing on creating digital tools that standardize and simplify the way products are produced. “We believe that not too long from now, a 15-year-old in a basement in Knoxville can launch a successful fashion brand with only their iPhone.”

He thinks made-to-measure brands are going to fail — unless they charge a lot — not because of the technology but because of supply-chain costs and limitations.

But Moore, of Fit3D, thinks manufacturing technology, from lasers that cut fabrics to robots that sort, is already in the “toddler” stage, and that a large conglomerate like Walmart or Amazon, which can invest in the entire supply chain, is well poised to make accessible custom clothing a reality.

scanBodyBlock AI by Fit3D

For now, at least, the promise of unique body scans lies not in making one-offs but in simplifying and improving pattern-making, which renders the notion of a one-size-informs-most fit model somewhat archaic.

Still, Moore argues that 3D body scanning isn’t likely to replace fit models entirely but rather to speed up the initial design process. “We think the fit model is valuable — in photoshoots, in the subjective feel of fabric and how [the garment] should fit from a preference standpoint. We just want to help validate the pattern using digital models,” he said.

At a time when inclusivity is a major thrust of the industry, perhaps it’s fitting that brands are often turning to the customer, rather than a fit model, first.

Zozo (the Japanese brand owned by Start Today) lets customers order from a few minimalist, affordable basics that are “custom fit,” meaning pulled from thousands of patterns based on the customer’s shape, proportions and style preferences. Start Today board member Masahiro Ito, who spearheaded the Zozosuit, said heavy investments in body measurement technology, real-time garment pattern generation and made-to-order production were essential to providing an “experience that eliminates size.”

“Size is usually determined by a specific measurement of the garment, such as hips or waist, with the rest of the garment scaled with a fixed ratio. Even if that one measurement fits the customer, it doesn’t mean the rest of the garment wears well,” he said. “Our business is to produce products that are customized or tailored to each individual, but at a mass scale — something the industry has yet to pull off.”

And while certainly profitability is at play, the company has a “feel-good” ethos in more ways than one. “Clothing is an essential part of living, and feeling good about yourself is important,” Ito said. “We think it’s the little things that make a difference, especially when multiplied across the globe.”

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