TechCrunch was the first to reported that Amazon has acquired Body Labs, a company with a stated aim of creating true-to-life 3D body models to support various b2b software applications — such as virtually trying on clothes or photorealistic avatars for gaming. The acquisition has since been confirmed by Body Labs on the company’s website.
Reports suggest the price tag could be between $50M and $100M
3D for Every-Body
I first reported on Body Labs in 2014 when I was writing for 3DPI in early 2014. I thought the company’s vision was fascinating and even visited them in NYC’s “Startup Alley” back in 2015.
In the not so far future, when you need to get a bespoke medical support product you will send the lab a 3D scan of yourself. When you want a dress/suit tailor made for you (or even 3D printed, or digitally knitted), you will send in a 3D scan of yourself. Further down the road, you will send in a 3D scan of yourself to get a car 3D printed just for you.
In other words, the body will become “the next interface between business and the consumer”, which was exactly Body Labs‘ initial claim. The New York City based company had just developed its advanced technology for creating 3D digital avatars through a decade-long collaboration with Brown University and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.
“Using the algorithms developed … we believe we can create a new interface between consumers and businesses,” said Bill O’Farrell, CEO and founder of Body Labs. “Consumers will be able to find, acquire and compare goods and services based on their particular size, shape and range of motion,” he added.
In Body Labs vision these products will include clothing and product design, 3D printing for speciality equipment and apparel, gaming, animation, as well as online apparel sales.
To create an avatar, customers upload a body scan or enter a few body measurements into BodyHub an online web application. BodyHub also gives users a range of additional functionality, including reposing, resizing or animating the avatar. For apparel design, this avatar can then be uploaded to computer-aided design (CAD) software, where it can be dressed and animated, allowing designers to see how their clothing fits various body types and how the clothing is altered and shaped by body movement.
The online parametric systems to model the body is in WebGL (so no Safari) and the software is amazingly responsive, precise and rapid. Making an accurate model of yourself takes only a few minutes (using measurements) and even less if you upload a 3D scan. The body models are fully posable and a wide range of poses are available in the Measurement Package, which costs $150 to download.
It might still take a little while before companies worldwide fully catch up but there is little doubt in my mind that this will one day be truly a service for every… body.
The Road to Mass Customization
Among the many paradoxes in the upcoming revolution of personalized goods is that, for physical products to become more tailor-made what first needs to happen is an evolution of our digital selves. What this means is that if we want to have clothes, sporting apparel, medical items and generally wearable technology that is made just for us we first need to have a digital alter ego roam the web to go try it on.
When Body Labs began working on developing that 3D digital self, surprisingly – although 3D scanning was starting to pick up momentum – there were not many companies developing the software architecture necessary to take those 3D scans and make them into “real” digital people that can move, adapt and try on bespoke digital products before they are 3D printed on demand.
The apparel industry is the first place where Body Labs technology is being implemented and is one of the reasons why the 10-person start-up decided to make New York City its base. Since regular clothing fibers cannot yet be 3D printed, all clothing prototyping activities need to be carried out digitally to reduce costs and – although there still are severe limitation in the development of digital clothes that can fit on digital people – Body Labs has developed algorithms that make the digital person’s movement appear more natural even with certain clothing items on.
In fact the company has already begun working with tailors and, in general, the B2B segment remains dominant in its business model. Even the Body Snap App it launched a few months ago to let consumers use the Kinect V2 system by Microsoft to create their digital selves is intended more as a tool for use in gyms and/or for the development of medical products.
Kinect is not the only system that can be used by Body Lab. That’s because its Body Hub is a platform and a set of tools to help companies begin to interact with their customers digital selves. It is a long process moving very rapidly.
“We are now releasing our SDK and API with a lot of different models to build on top on,” Julia Gilroy, Body Labs’ director of marketing, told me at the time. “Although we are growing we are small and we need other people to contribute to the platform’s development by creating new apps.”
Body Labs presents its platform as the most accurate body model available, the only one that can move naturally through all its parts and not through a virtual internal skeleton. Body Labs envisions the 3D model as a digital system to customize all products. “We can extrapolate a lot of data and measurements from the body model – Julia tells me – and we can do a point to point comparison of different bodies. This means the computer knows where a specific point is on the model even if it is taking different poses. In online shopping, for example, we would not need to actually have the model wear a digital item as much as comparing the data from someone of similar size and shape”.
The possibilities for this technology are endless although we are still in a very early phase and more companies need to get involved in the virtual arena to create a functional ecosystem that will lead to personalized and on-demand product manufacturing for consumers. The Body Labs technology was developed by Michael Black, a professor at Brown University who is now at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where he leads the Perceiving Systems department and is continuing his studies in the simulation of human breathing.
So far the Body Labs body models have been licensed and used by companies’ innovation departments to study and develop sportswear items made specifically to fit the particular shapes of high level athletes and – with the help of 3D printing – to produce padding for football players. To do this Body Labs uses both high end 3D scanning systems and motion capture systems. The data can then be integrated into the 3D body scan, meaning any digital body can be made to move accordingly, without each person having to go through the motion capture produce.
Julia thought that one of the most accessible applications of Body Lab’s technology would be in the health sector. “We do body comparisons by creating a heat map and data of each part that is different between two models. This means you will be able to track and visualize how your body changes over time with exercise, which might also be convenient for buying new clothes,” she said.
Although it is not the only application, the virtual try-on option is the first that comes to mind. For example last year’s partnership with Nervous Systems, one of the most advanced experimental 3D printing studios, which led to the development of a 3D printed modular Kinematics Bodice.
One more possible area of application is in healthcare. Not just for the development of tailor made casts and prostheses but as a virtual application to help people overcome their own limitations in the rehabilitation process after an accident. Studies have shown that visualizing a movement can help someone replicate it successfully even if they thought they could not do it. The digital self will have to lead the way and that is exactly what Body Labs wants to have it do by making it more independent.
A Digital Body in Digital Clothes
This is what I was writing in late 2014, early 2015, as the company’s vision began to turn toward online shopping and ultimately toward the reason Amazon became interested in their technology.
Body Labs then took another, perhaps more effective, step by developing the BodyKit series of online tools, that let users create accurate digital reproductions of their body shape and volume, uniquely through the use of its ShapeX software tools (the “Instant API”) or software coupled with home 3D scanning devices such as Kinect (the “BodyHub API”).
While awaiting the upcoming personal manufacturing revolution, Body Labs like many other 3D-centric software developers is now making its tools available to businesses and enterprises that may benefit from them in the short and medium term. The company has just released two new features to its BodyKit embedded component for virtualizing, analyzing and simulating any human body.
The vision moving Body Labs CEO Bill O’Farrel is that of enabling companies to create digital and physical products and services centered on virtual human body models, by simply implementing Body Labs extensive database of information on the human body.
The new API’s will enable a system to instantly compute the volume and surface area of any body or specific body part such as the arms, legs or torso. This is mainly targeted at companies that offer online products such as clothing and other custom wearables. In the future, it could be integrated into online 3D printing services as well.
The system could also be used to monitor a person’s health and fitness during workout programs. “Body and body segment volumes can be indicative of certain medical conditions; it can also be used as a proxy to estimate body composition and therefore, overall health,” the company explained in a statement.
One other very interesting feature is full support and compatibility for Adobe’s recently acquired Mixamo platform, which means it allows for automatic rigging of any mesh generated by BodyKit’s instant API. The digital body shape is released in the form of an an open-source script, so that the body models can be rigged with Mixamo-compatible skeletons for easy implementation in digital content such as animation and video games.
The .FBX format meshes can be easily manipulated digitally, using CAD/3D animation programs such as Autodesk Maya or Blender, and while this is certainly a great opportunity for personalized digital entertainment content, there is little doubt in my mind that the platform’s applications in online custom shopping are the most fascinating in the longer run. Body Labs has already worked with companies such as shirt manufacturer Woodies and visionary 3D printing design studio Nervous Systems on offering and developing digital tailor-made clothing.
As this is a market segment which is currently in a very early phase, Body Labs is offering enterprises the possibility to test its system for free, by signing up to the Idea Plan, which does not allow for saving body content but offers plenty of API and ShapeX (the company’s online body creation tool) interaction. Other professional plans range from $20 to $450 a month. Getting out-of-body and into a digital body is going to become a lot easier.