|A first look at the Style-Eyes app.
We've all been there. You're walking down the street when you see someone wearing something that fills you with fashion envy. Or you're flipping through a magazine - print or digital - and you spot a celebrity wearing a piece you'd love to own, but maybe can't splurge on. Thankfully, there'll soon be an app for that.
Style-Eyes is a free smartphone, tablet and computer application currently being developed in Dublin by Dr. Mark Hughes and Bobby Pringle. The app, provisionally named Style-Eyes pending further market research, uses image recognition technology to make fashion more accessible.
For the user, it's simple. Open the app and take a picture of a fashion item, whether it's a sweater dress or a leather handbag. The sophisticated software can recognise anything that, as Hughes says, "is visually distinctive," and it immediately searches through an extensive database for an exact match. In just milliseconds, results appear on your screen showing you the product you've photographed (if it's in the database) as well as a host of other options that are similar in colour, shape and/or texture.
Although Style-Eyes' sleek user interface is simple to use, requiring you to only point and shoot, the technology behind it is quite complex, stemming from Hughes' post-doctoral research in object recognition software. Undertaken at Dublin City University (DCU), Hughes' original work was created with the tourism industry in mind, and focused on technology that could recognise landmarks and provide information about such places to its users. The software is widely available today.
"At a very basic level, it's the same type of technology," explains Hughes, one of the world's leading scientists on image recognition. "The search process is similar, so when we were speaking about where we could take this sort of technology commercially, fashion seemed like a good choice."
When Hughes began brainstorming with Pringle, a Ph.D candidate in Enterprise and Development at DCU, the two saw great potential for a collaboration of fashion with the technology, taking inspiration from their everyday lives. "I'd be walking down the street with my girlfriend and she'd see somebody and like their dress," Pringle explains. "She'd say, 'I want to get that dress,' but she was embarrassed to stop them and ask."
"That's where the idea really came from," he adds. "It was a real serendipitous connection that just fell together. We got talking and this fell out of it, and we said, 'OK, well let's do it.'"
Although Hughes' research dates back about seven years, Style-Eyes has been a work in progress for only three months. Its funding has come entirely from Enterprise Ireland, a government initiative to fund innovative business ventures. Hughes and Pringle have also received support from CLARITY (the Centre for Sensor Web Technologies), an industry leading research centre that is a project of University College Dublin, Dublin City University and Tyndall National Institute. These relationships, especially the network of expert scientists at CLARITY, have helped Style-Eyes' six-person team move at what Pringle describes as "breakneck speed."
"From a technical perspective, there are a lot of challenges with clothes in particular, because you have these sorts of deformations as people move," Hughes explains. He adds that another issue is presented when items are only partially visible, such as when a purse is tucked under someone's arm. "It's a difficult problem, but we've come up with an innovative solution," he says, unable to reveal more details because of pending patents.
Despite how far they've progressed, the team isn't ready to release Style-Eyes to the public just yet, although Pringle and Hughes say a beta version of the app is on its way and will soon be available to a limited number of users who register on their website. "We're trying to get the technology really flawless before releasing it, so the time frame is hard to say," Hughes explains.
Although it's still in development, Style-Eyes has already been well received by the fashion industry. "We go to a lot of fashion shows and it's fantastic when we hear people's feedback," says Pringle, who manages partnerships with industry players, including retailers and designers. "Especially talking to designers, you tell them about your application and they want to be involved straight away. […] When [Hughes] tells them we've built the technology, they're just jumping out of their shoes and they seem to be ready."
Presently, the application is focused on womenswear for users in Ireland and the UK, but Pringle and Hughes plan to add menswear and international retailers to their catalogue in the future. Retailers must pay for their products to be included, but according to Pringle, the fee comes with a number of benefits. "I think there's an idea that there needs to be a very large financial and time commitment to maintain some sort of a web presence, and this is where we fit in," he explains. "From a retailer's perspective, it's very easy to use. We're low maintenance, so they wouldn't have to maintain it daily."
Pringle also adds that Style-Eyes' system could possibly be the retail of the future. "It's third generation," he says. "First generation is bricks and mortar retail, second generation is online retail and we're taking this one step further to the next generation, that I suppose is…"
"It's smart retail," Hughes says.
And in its "smart" approach, Style-Eyes can promise retailers a very high level of engagement on the part of its users, which Pringle and Hughes say is due to the visual and interactive nature of the application. Not only does it search for that much-desired dress or handbag, but it also includes wish lists, trend reports and a recommendation system that present even more options based on searches.
"We think that for the end user it's just such a powerful tool to have," Pringle says, "to find that exact piece whenever you want, wherever you want, no matter if you're in the cinema or you're walking down the street or you're at a fashion show or you're reading a magazine."
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