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The narrative that often accompanies most stories about artificial intelligence these days is how machines will disrupt any number of industries, from healthcare to transportation. It makes sense. After all, technology already drives many of the innovations in these sectors of the economy.
But sneakers and the red carpet? The definitively low-tech fashion industry would seem to be one of the last to turn over its creative direction to data scientists and machine learning algorithms.
However, big brands, e-commerce giants, and numerous startups are betting that AI can ingest data and spit out Chanel. Maybe it’s not surprising, given that fashion is partly about buzz and trends—and there’s nothing more buzzy and trendy in the world of tech today than AI.
In its annual survey of the $3 trillion fashion industry, consulting firm McKinsey predicted that while AI didn’t hit a “critical mass” in 2018, it would increasingly influence the business of everything from design to manufacturing.
“Fashion as an industry really has been so slow to understand its potential roles interwoven with technology. And, to be perfectly honest, the technology doesn’t take fashion seriously.” This comment comes from Zowie Broach, head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Arts, who as a self-described “old fashioned” designer has embraced the disruptive nature of technology—with some caveats.
Co-founder in the late 1990s of the avant-garde fashion label Boudicca, Broach has always seen tech as a tool for designers, even setting up a website for the company circa 1998, way before an online presence became, well, fashionable.
Broach told Singularity Hub that while she is generally optimistic about the future of technology in fashion—the designer has avidly been consuming old sci-fi novels over the last few years—there are still a lot of difficult questions to answer about the interface of algorithms, art, and apparel.
For instance, can AI do what the great designers of the past have done? Fashion was “about designing, it was about a narrative, it was about meaning, it was about expression,” according to Broach.
AI that designs products based on data gleaned from human behavior can potentially tap into the Pavlovian response in consumers in order to make money, Broach noted. But is that channeling creativity, or just digitally dabbling in basic human brain chemistry?
She is concerned about people retaining control of the process, whether we’re talking about their data or their designs. But being empowered with the insights machines could provide into, for example, the geographical nuances of fashion between Dubai, Moscow, and Toronto is thrilling.
“What is it that we want the future to be from a fashion, an identity, and design perspective?” she asked.
Off on the Right Foot
Silicon Valley and some of the biggest brands in the industry offer a few answers about where AI and fashion are headed (though not at the sort of depths that address Broach’s broader questions of aesthetics and ethics).
Take what is arguably the biggest brand in fashion, at least by market cap but probably not by the measure of appearances on Oscar night: Nike. The $100 billion shoe company just gobbled up an AI startup called Celect to bolster its data analytics and optimize its inventory. In other words, Nike hopes it will be able to figure out what’s hot and what’s not in a particular location to stock its stores more efficiently.
The company is going even further with Nike Fit, a foot-scanning platform using a smartphone camera that applies AI techniques from fields like computer vision and machine learning to find the best fit for each person’s foot. The algorithms then identify and recommend the appropriately sized and shaped shoe in different styles.
No doubt the next step will be to 3D print personalized and on-demand sneakers at any store.
San Francisco-based startup ThirdLove is trying to bring a similar approach to bra sizes. Its 20-member data team, Fortune reported, has developed the Fit Finder quiz that uses machine learning algorithms to help pick just the right garment for every body type.
Data scientists are also a big part of the team at Stitch Fix, a former San Francisco startup that went public in 2017 and today sports a market cap of more than $2 billion. The online “personal styling” company uses hundreds of algorithms to not only make recommendations to customers, but to help design new styles and even manage the subscription-based supply chain.
Future of Fashion
E-commerce giant Amazon has thrown its own considerable resources into developing AI applications for retail fashion—with mixed results.
One notable attempt involved a “styling assistant” that came with the company’s Echo Look camera that helped people catalog and manage their wardrobes, evening helping pick out each day’s attire. The company more recently revisited the direct consumer side of AI with an app called StyleSnap, which matches clothes and accessories uploaded to the site with the retailer’s vast inventory and recommends similar styles.
Behind the curtains, Amazon is going even further. A team of researchers in Israel have developed algorithms that can deduce whether a particular look is stylish based on a few labeled images. Another group at the company’s San Francisco research center was working on tech that could generate new designs of items based on images of a particular style the algorithms trained on.
“I will say that the accumulation of many new technologies across the industry could manifest in a highly specialized style assistant, far better than the examples we’ve seen today. However, the most likely thing is that the least sexy of the machine learning work will become the most impactful, and the public may never hear about it.”
That prediction is from an online interview with Leanne Luce, a fashion technology blogger and product manager at Google who recently wrote a book called, succinctly enough, Artificial Intelligence and Fashion.
Data Meets Design
Academics are also sticking their beakers into AI and fashion. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Adobe Research have previously demonstrated that neural networks, a type of AI designed to mimic some aspects of the human brain, can be trained to generate (i.e., design) new product images to match a buyer’s preference, much like the team at Amazon.
Meanwhile, scientists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are working with China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, on developing a FashionAI Dataset to help machines better understand fashion. The effort will focus on how algorithms approach certain building blocks of design, what are called “key points” such as neckline and waistline, and “fashion attributes” like collar types and skirt styles.
The man largely behind the university’s research team is Calvin Wong, a professor and associate head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing. His group has also developed an “intelligent fabric defect detection system” called WiseEye for quality control, reducing the chance of producing substandard fabric by 90 percent.
Wong and company also recently inked an agreement with RCA to establish an AI-powered design laboratory, though the details of that venture have yet to be worked out, according to Broach.
One hope is that such collaborations will not just get at the technological challenges of using machines in creative endeavors like fashion, but will also address the more personal relationships humans have with their machines.
“I think who we are, and how we use AI in fashion, as our identity, is not a superficial skin. It’s very, very important for how we define our future,” Broach said.
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Today, Double Robotics is announcing Double 3, the latest major upgrade to its line of consumer(ish) telepresence robots. We had a (mostly) fantastic time testing out Double 2 back in 2016. One of the things that we found out back then was that it takes a lot of practice to remotely drive the robot around. Double 3 solves this problem by leveraging the substantial advances in 3D sensing and computing that have taken place over the past few years, giving their new robot a level of intelligence that promises to make telepresence more accessible for everyone.
Double 2’s iPad has been replaced by “a fully integrated solution”—which is a fancy way of saying a dedicated 9.7-inch touchscreen and a whole bunch of other stuff. That other stuff includes an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 AI computing module, a beamforming six-microphone array, an 8-watt speaker, a pair of 13-megapixel cameras (wide angle and zoom) on a tilting mount, five ultrasonic rangefinders, and most excitingly, a pair of Intel RealSense D430 depth sensors.
It’s those new depth sensors that really make Double 3 special. The D430 modules each uses a pair of stereo cameras with a pattern projector to generate 1280 x 720 depth data with a range of between 0.2 and 10 meters away. The Double 3 robot uses all of this high quality depth data to locate obstacles, but at this point, it still doesn’t drive completely autonomously. Instead, it presents the remote operator with a slick, augmented reality view of drivable areas in the form of a grid of dots. You just click where you want the robot to go, and it will skillfully take itself there while avoiding obstacles (including dynamic obstacles) and related mishaps along the way.
This effectively offloads the most stressful part of telepresence—not running into stuff—from the remote user to the robot itself, which is the way it should be. That makes it that much easier to encourage people to utilize telepresence for the first time. The way the system is implemented through augmented reality is particularly impressive, I think. It looks like it’s intuitive enough for an inexperienced user without being restrictive, and is a clever way of mitigating even significant amounts of lag.
Otherwise, Double 3’s mobility system is exactly the same as the one featured on Double 2. In fact, that you can stick a Double 3 head on a Double 2 body and it instantly becomes a Double 3. Double Robotics is thoughtfully offering this to current Double 2 owners as a significantly more affordable upgrade option than buying a whole new robot.
For more details on all of Double 3's new features, we spoke with the co-founders of Double Robotics, Marc DeVidts and David Cann.
IEEE Spectrum: Why use this augmented reality system instead of just letting the user click on a regular camera image? Why make things more visually complicated, especially for new users?
Marc DeVidts and David Cann: One of the things that we realized about nine months ago when we got this whole thing working was that without the mixed reality for driving, it was really too magical of an experience for the customer. Even us—we had a hard time understanding whether the robot could really see obstacles and understand where the floor is and that kind of thing. So, we said “What would be the best way of communicating this information to the user?” And the right way to do it ended up drawing the graphics directly onto the scene. It’s really awesome—we have a full, real time 3D scene with the depth information drawn on top of it. We’re starting with some relatively simple graphics, and we’ll be adding more graphics in the future to help the user understand what the robot is seeing.
How robust is the vision system when it comes to obstacle detection and avoidance? Does it work with featureless surfaces, IR absorbent surfaces, in low light, in direct sunlight, etc?
We’ve looked at all of those cases, and one of the reasons that we’re going with the RealSense is the projector that helps us to see blank walls. We also found that having two sensors—one facing the floor and one facing forward—gives us a great coverage area. Having ultrasonic sensors in there as well helps us to detect anything that we can't see with the cameras. They're sort of a last safety measure, especially useful for detecting glass.
It seems like there’s a lot more that you could do with this sensing and mapping capability. What else are you working on?
We're starting with this semi-autonomous driving variant, and we're doing a private beta of full mapping. So, we’re going to do full SLAM of your environment that will be mapped by multiple robots at the same time while you're driving, and then you'll be able to zoom out to a map and click anywhere and it will drive there. That's where we're going with it, but we want to take baby steps to get there. It's the obvious next step, I think, and there are a lot more possibilities there.
Do you expect developers to be excited for this new mapping capability?
We're using a very powerful computer in the robot, a NVIDIA Jetson TX2 running Ubuntu. There's room to grow. It’s actually really exciting to be able to see, in real time, the 3D pose of the robot along with all of the depth data that gets transformed in real time into one view that gives you a full map. Having all of that data and just putting those pieces together and getting everything to work has been a huge feat in of itself.
We have an extensive API for developers to do custom implementations, either for telepresence or other kinds of robotics research. Our system isn't running ROS, but we're going to be adding ROS adapters for all of our hardware components.
Telepresence robots depend heavily on wireless connectivity, which is usually not something that telepresence robotics companies like Double have direct control over. Have you found that connectivity has been getting significantly better since you first introduced Double?
When we started in 2013, we had a lot of customers that didn’t have WiFi in their hallways, just in the conference rooms. We very rarely hear about customers having WiFi connectivity issues these days. The bigger issue we see is when people are calling into the robot from home, where they don't have proper traffic management on their home network. The robot doesn't need a ton of bandwidth, but it does need consistent, low latency bandwidth. And so, if someone else in the house is watching Netflix or something like that, it’s going to saturate your connection. But for the most part, it’s gotten a lot better over the last few years, and it’s no longer a big problem for us.
Do you think 5G will make a significant difference to telepresence robots?
We’ll see. We like the low latency possibilities and the better bandwidth, but it's all going to be a matter of what kind of reception you get. LTE can be great, if you have good reception; it’s all about where the tower is. I’m pretty sure that WiFi is going to be the primary thing for at least the next few years.
DeVidts also mentioned that an unfortunate side effect of the new depth sensors is that hanging a t-shirt on your Double to give it some personality will likely render it partially blind, so that's just something to keep in mind. To make up for this, you can switch around the colorful trim surrounding the screen, which is nowhere near as fun.
When the Double 3 is ready for shipping in late September, US $2,000 will get you the new head with all the sensors and stuff, which seamlessly integrates with your Double 2 base. Buying Double 3 straight up (with the included charging dock) will run you $4,ooo. This is by no means an inexpensive robot, and my impression is that it’s not really designed for individual consumers. But for commercial, corporate, healthcare, or education applications, $4k for a robot as capable as the Double 3 is really quite a good deal—especially considering the kinds of use cases for which it’s ideal.
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