Damage by Design to Make It Mine

Among our favorite topics is mass customization, the growing trend of shoppers personalizing products online before purchase and before they’re manufactured. Admittedly we have a self-interest in the trend, evident in our gBuilder demo.

A distant cousin to mass customization recently caught our eye. It’s too amorphous to warrant trend status. We’ve named it post-purchase offline customization, or PPOC, a term absent from Google until we post this blog item.

The most intriguing PPOC examples require in the final stage of design not sophisticated technology but intentional infliction of damage. Sometimes the damage is strategic, sometimes random. Depending on results buyers are left with a product prized for its uniquely personal aesthetic appeal or, less likely, personalized buyer’s remorse.

Especially piquing our interest is a concrete-sheathed hanging lamp. The designer, Romanian architect Dragos Motica, empowers the buyer to create art. In the package is a rock for chipping holes in the concrete to make a one-of-a-kind look, not just of the lamp’s exterior but the pattern of emitted light.

Motica poses philosophical questions that hover far above the lamp:

“When is an object designed? When is an object precious, particular? What is broken and what is new? What means the result of a mechanical intervention (more or less violent) on an object? What is an vulgarized object?”

In apparel the best known and oldest example of PPOC are jeans known as “extreme destroy.” For the unfamiliar, pictures explain better than words. DIYers made the random look so popular that opportunistic companies stepped in and made faded, tattered jeans a hot, unabating fashion trend.

We’re not sure where to classify jeans made from denim that lions, tigers and bears at a Japanese zoo claw, chew, and otherwise distress. The animals “play” with denim-wrapped objects at the behest of Zoo Jeans, a brand started by volunteers seeking to finance the zoo’s revitalization.

And then there’s the Edward Scissorhands of apparel, Adam Saaks, who has achieved celebrity status for his live-performance prowess at rapidly cutting artistic slits and other designs in t-shirts, swimsuits, and other garments while the buyers wear them. Now Saaks is selling his slashed works online, and he's inspired some fans to create DIY videos.

Whether customized before or after purchase, online or offline, or with or without intentional damage, such products tap deeply into what people desire: owning things not as possessions but as reflections of themselves--or who they want to be.



Long Road to Make Virtual Apparel Look Real

The staggering but steady leaps in computing power make possible Embodee’s virtual product experiences, as they do countless other things. Without several decades of exponential advances, our servers would take intolerably long to dynamically render images of apparel. And your web-enabled devices would take even longer to display them.

For example, our recently patented virtual try-on technology produces in seconds a 360-degree view of how a pair of jeans fit you. In the past it would have taken minutes or even hours, an experience like trying on those jeans in a dressing room but endlessly waiting to see anything in the mirror.

While personal computers today process hundreds of billions of instructions a second, the number in 1987 was less than 20 million. That year two computer scientists in Palo Alto, California developed how to simulate shapes of flexible objects, including cloth.

They applied principles of physics to control how those objects moved virtually from effects of gravity, wind, contact with the body movements, and so forth.

But because even the legendary Cray computer, the most powerful available at the time, wasn’t powerful enough to process the required complex instructions, the simulations either didn’t work or were too short.

It would take 10 years for other scientists to improve the software and for computing power to catch up so that apparel would look and move realistically on animated characters. The public first saw the results in the 1997 Oscar-winning short Geri’s Game.

While working for French visual effects innovator BUF Compagnie, our R & D director, Isabelle Haulin, helped to create cloth simulation software used later in state-of-the-art feature films. The first was The Cell in 2000, which featured visual effects taken for granted today. But at the time the simulation of a giant purple cape was groundbreaking.

Haulin has applied her film work to Embodee’s technology that renders high-fidelity 3D images of apparel, realistically simulating drape, wrinkles, and weave.

Integrated with the technology is cloth simulator software from Syflex. The company was started after its founder developed visual effects for the film Final Fantasy. It now makes available a widely used cloth simulation plug-in.

“Besides film production, cloth simulation is increasingly used in the gaming and apparel design industries as some user-friendly applications have become available,” Haulin said. “It also can handle a higher concentration of particles--geometric shapes--and increased garment complexity (multiple layers) close to real time, improving rendering speed and realism.”

Virtual product experiences with apparel are sure to become even richer visually, not to mention faster, as computing power advances ever upward.

3 Ways Touchscreens Influence Online Shoppers

Welcome, retailers. Today’s lesson: the power of touch.

According to recent academic research, online shoppers more highly value a product if they touch an image of it using a touchscreen instead of pointing at it via a computer mouse or touchpad.

Yes, yes, the margin-squeezed skeptics among you are silently scoffing: What difference does it make how they click to our wares?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Boston College professors, S. Adam Brasel and James Gips, whose research was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that touchscreen shopping influences shoppers in three ways:

  1. They feel a stronger sense of psychological ownership.
  2. That sense of ownership triggers what’s known as the endowment effect: the perception that the product is worth more money than the selling price.
  3. If the product is one shoppers typically touch and hold at a brick-and-mortar store, such as apparel, the intensity of attachment and perceived value increase yet again.
Professors Gips, Brasel  (Boston College photo/Lee Pellegrini)

Professors Gips, Brasel  (Boston College photo/Lee Pellegrini)

The product choices in two study groups were college sweatshirts and city walking-tours, and the sweatshirts and tents. Participants who used tablets and selected sweatshirts were willing to sell them but for an average of 50% more than the asking price.

“Essentially, directly touching pictures of products generates feelings of ownership, causing you to act in many ways as if you already own the products,” Brasel and Gips wrote. “This can increase your perceived value of the product, make you more attached to the product, and more reluctant to give it up.”

Those responses can be the same type generated when touching the product in a physical store. After all, “we’ll hold the product in one hand and touch the product with the other hand,” Brasel told The Boston College Chronicle. “So the act of doing that on a tablet mimics our real-world experience much better.”

Brasel also said the findings could be helpful for retailers as online shopping increases, as does web access via tablets and smart-phones.

"It suggests they should be putting a lot of effort into optimizing their touchscreen versions of their websites, the ones designed for phones and tablets. And that you want as much direct touch as possible, and the pictures of your products to be as vivid and as real as possible because that will generate these ownership perceptions. Retailers should work with that and not necessarily against it.”

Class dismissed.

Is Retail Facing Tectonic Upheaval?


“I am not a number, I am a free man.”

That defiant declaration was enshrined in pop culture in the late 1960s, courtesy of the British cult TV series The Prisoner and its main character, Number Six, played by Patrick McGoohan. The show was remade as a miniseries that aired in 2009.

The show came to mind while reading one of 2013’s most provocative predictions about the retail industry from futurist and consultant Doug Stephens, who uses the moniker Retail Prophet. (The most provocative of the year, hands down, was tech investor Marc Andreesen’s claim that physical retail stores are destined for death. We’re not sure we can side with him but love the debate.) 

Stephens, author of the 2013 book The Retail Revival, wrote in a blog post that a revolution is coming in retail, a revolution moving at “a velocity and scale that I suspect will be incomprehensible compared to all that came before it.”


He prophesied an era of “massive customization.” It will transcend, according to Stephens, the accelerating adoption of mass customization in which consumers partly customize mass-produced goods to meet their individual preferences and aesthetic tastes. Nearly 1,000 companies offering limited customization, representing 17 industry sectors, are listed here.

Stephens foresees a technology-fueled transformation of the manufacturing and retail landscape in which “virtually anything I want can be made for me. Just me.”

Stephens elaborated in an email exchange with Embodee:

“The primary reason I see this change moving faster than anything previous to it, is that unlike past revolutions, we are no longer bounded by the pace of industrial capacity. And this is what is freaking so many businesses out right now. We are, in essence, leaving the industrial era which tended to be very incremental and predictable in terms of growth and entering the digital era, which as we all know only too well, is exponential and tangential in nature.  

“Therefore, the unprecedented capacity for consumers to source, create and design according to their personal preferences, matched with the ability for companies to produce single units of those goods efficiently, will come faster and more profoundly than any previous consumer revolution.”

If such sweeping changes indeed happen, marketers will have to rethink mass-categorizing consumers into broad niches based on demographics and income.

In the dark fictional world of the The Prisoner, McGoohan’s Number Six repeatedly asked, “Who is Number One”? In the real and brighter world Stephens envisions, there is no mystery.

The advent of massive customization means each of us will be free, free to buy whatever we want and the precise way we want it. Each of us will be Number One. Or to use Stephens’ marketing parlance for the future of retail, our own unique Segment of One.

Massive Shift to Mass Customization

Is mass customization of products finally on track to become the norm?

Academics and consultants have prognosticated this post-Industrial Revolution, end-of-mass-production era for two decades. They foresaw consumers routinely customizing goods online to meet personal tastes before the products are made.

No overnight sea change happened, however. Instead, companies—from the mammoth to the upstart—have slowly embraced or at least experimented with the approach, especially in recent years. Often this is how revolutions happen. Quietly, momentum builds until the revolutionary becomes the mainstream.

A not-all-inclusive database of companies offering online customization options now numbers 969. That’s, up from 900 a year ago when we first explored the vastly diverse portfolio of customizable products offered. In 2007, the database listed 400 companies.


Advances in technology, changing consumer attitudes, and a keener recognition of the business opportunities that mass customization presents have coalesced, signaling conditions are right for the long-predicted shift. (It’s welcome news at Embodee, given that our vivid 3D virtual product experiences are integral to customization of apparel and footwear for some of the world’s largest sports apparel brands.)

A recent spate of surveys and studies, widely touted in mainstream media, have served as a clarion call for the change ahead. Some CEOs and other executive suite officials of major companies have added their voices, too.

Last month, Siemens USA CEO Eric Spiegel told a conference that American manufacturing is in the midst of a software revolution, a revolution that will lead to global mass customization of products. In February, a Time magazine article from The Drucker Institute proclaimed: “Soon You’ll Be Able to Order Anything, Exactly How You Want.” In November, Forbes weighed in: “Having It Their Way: The Big Opportunity in Personalized Products.”

The trigger for the coverage appears to have been a widely cited Bain & Company survey of more than 1,000 online shoppers. Published last fall, the survey found that while less than 10% of consumers have tried customization options, 25% to 30% are interested in doing so.

“Sellers of everything from dress shirts to handbags and even consumer packaged goods are discovering the value of letting customers create their own unique products,” Bain’s Elizabeth Spaulding and Christopher Perry wrote.

The financial potential for companies? “While it is hard to gauge the overall potential of customization, if 25% of online sales of footwear were customized, that would equate to a market of $2 billion per year,” the Bain analysts said.

Then in February, analysts for McKinsey & Company delved into the technological advances that have made a massive shift more viable—and likely—than in the past.

“We believe the time for widespread, profitable mass customization may finally have come, the result of emerging or improved technologies that can help address economic barriers to responding to consumers’ exact needs in a more precise way.”

The analysts went on to identify some of the technologies. “For example, online configuration tech­nologies that can easily and cost-effectively assemble customers’ preferences and 3D digital modeling that lets shoppers envision the final product are becoming increasingly affordable and scalable.”

The week before McKinsey published its report, the Mass Customization Personalization and Co-Creation conference was held in Aalborg, Denmark. The seventh such gathering in 14 years, it featured more than 50 academic papers and 21 speakers, including our CTO, George Borshukov.

He made the case that if mass customization is to become ubiquitous, immersive 3D product experiences must play a key role.

Also at the conference, a long-time evangelist of the mass customization movement, B. Joseph Pine II, issued a bold proclamation. “The Mass Customization Manifesto” declares that mass production “as an icon, a role model, a paradigm” is dead.

“Thankfully, the ever-growing capabilities of digitization empower our businesses, our processes, and our offerings (whether they be goods, services, experiences, or transformations). For anything we can digitize we can customize.”

One Product, Countless Views

Sometimes it’s challenging to comprehend innovations that far outpace their once-innovative forerunners.

Consider the introduction of motion pictures in the late 1800s, Polaroid photography in the 1940s, and digital photography in the 1970s. They weren’t incremental advances in technology. They were leaps forward.

Those advances come to mind now thanks to an anecdote and unrelated calculation about Embodee’s unique visualization technology.

First the anecdote. While demonstrating our virtual product experiences at an apparel industry technology conference, a woman asked, “How do you take and upload so many pictures”? We said they aren’t photographs in the conventional sense and explained our process and its benefits.

The calculation: how many high-fidelity 3D images of customizable apparel and footwear can our software dynamically create, on demand? To find the answer we chose an athletic shoe.

If each of 14 available colors were used to customize each of the shoe’s 9 customizable parts, the answer is--cue Carl Sagan’s voice--in the billions and billions. To be precise, 20,661,046,784.

The calculation comes courtesy of Steve Bleiler, head of Portland State University’s mathematics and statistics department. Perhaps we’ll ask Dr. Bleiler to expand his calculation to include some of the shoe’s other available customization options: any English text up to nine characters long from among five fonts, any of those 14 colors for the text and text outline, and the 39 additional viewing angles available when each image is incrementally rotated.

Obviously brands and retailers don’t need this hard-to-fathom array of available images. Only an infinitesimal fraction of the possible combinations enables online shoppers to experience products much more immersively than do conventional e-commerce presentation methods, such as digital still images and video. And the benefits are proven.

The point of the calculation? To demonstrate a leap forward and the power of our software.

Check out our demo to get an idea. Be forewarned, however: it takes lifetimes of continual clicking to generate each available image.