The Simulation Revolution: When Tech Worlds Collide

By Craig Crawford

What happens when fashion, gaming, and movie tech come together? Another industrial revolution—a world of realistic virtual simulated product.

While still early days, the exciting convergence of these technologies has created an unprecedented opportunity for brands and retailers to offer nearly limitless assortments of products that can be designed, prototyped, fit, and sold virtually—before manufacture.

“Getting hold of physical product is frictional,” explains Lincoln Wallen, CEO of NOVA, a tech start-up spun out of the California-based DreamWorks Animation SKG (the folks that brought us Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda, and Madagascar). NOVA is a platform that allows fashion brands to render products based on a library of components—creating highly personalized, photo-real product images and videos that can be sent to mobile devices, in-store screens, and interactive displays, as well as used internally for product design and merchandising decisions.

“We’re not a tool. We manage the assets and their dependencies and manage them on the fly,” Wallen explains. “We are a platform. We integrate the individual components and make investment in tools more impactful on the underlying business. Through NOVA, everyone in the business has the opportunity to configure and generate product imagery to support their decision-making processes. NOVA delivers CGI across the whole enterprise. The combination is very powerful.”

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

The blend of gaming and movie tech with fashion is well understood by Wallen.

Before NOVA, Wallen was the CTO of DreamWorks Animation, and prior to that the CTO of Electronic Arts Mobile gaming business. (EA is a California-based global interactive entertainment software company that publishes more titles than any other gaming company—EA Sports series, Need for Speed, Mass Effect, and Battlefield are some.)

“Moment by moment updates in response to what you do—that’s gaming, and that’s the ultimate in personalization,” says Wallen. “The same holds true with products. But you wouldn’t give that much freedom to the consumer at the movies, because the design of a movie is constructed to have an emotional response elicited from the audiovisual experience. The techniques of movie making are the same ones brands can and do use in generating an emotional response.”

“An image is a compilation—a malleable object, not a fixed thing,” he explains. “Change the lighting, change the language, change the product, and re-render the image. You can recompose it anytime you like, based on whatever components are input. Press a button and have it re-compile. Think of real-live dashboards versus reporting tools,” he says.

“Product design and development is slowed down by being based in the physical world,” Wallen says. “By moving this to digital, it takes minutes instead of months. We remove the bottleneck of getting decision makers around real product.”

Last year, in London’s Piccadilly Circus, Burberry partnered with NOVA to allow passersby to create their own personalized scarves and display them on the digital billboard.

“We focus on fidelity and the substitution of digital products for the physical—which have to be photographed anyway,” Wallen says. “Product is what you are putting in front of the consumer. When you have to make that product, and then photograph or video it and then post-produce, it’s not very efficient.”

“Retail is now in a continuous engagement model,” Wallen explains. “A consumer is always in your store, whether that’s on eCommerce, social media, or YouTube,” he says. “It is a relationship that every brand needs to nurture.”

“The digital landscape of consumers today means that all companies need to generate product imagery like movie companies do,” Wallen says. “Consumers formulate intent to buy on digital channels. A continuous delivery of high quality imagery across all channels keeps the consumer engaged and stimulated. Generating product imagery that drives emotional attachment is how the marketplace is now working.”

But NOVA is more than a solution for marketing. Nike announced at its analysts meeting last year that, in partnership with NOVA, it is building a 3D digital design system, aimed to transform the product creation process. The partnership plans to deliver cutting-edge capabilities, such as near real-time digital print applications, photo-real 3D visualizations, and ultra-rapid prototyping.

Can Inventory Really Be a Thing of the Past?

“Seeing product from design to merchandising and then to marketing—the complete picture—is the real value with simulation,” Wallen says. “What will final product look like? What will a collection look like? What will a store feel like? All before anything physical is made.”

This creates shorter lead times and has the potential to transform the fashion business from a make-and-sell into a make-to-order model.

“You can sell your product before you manufacture it,” Wallen explains. “Brand recognition and consumer trust with quality means you can really explore design and render and offer limitless options before making it.”

Digital First, Physical Second

Most 3D systems on the market today require some sort of physical prototype as the basis for digitization. But this is changing too.

In Audaces Idea 4D, a designer (the fourth dimension) can play and prototype in a 3D environment that is similar to how a sculptor creates a sculpture from a block. Using a form, the designer can drape, crop, and manipulate product in real time without the need to “digitally stitch” a digitized pattern. (If you still want to digitize existing patterns, with Audaces Digiflash the process is as simple as taking a smartphone photograph of the manual pattern.) Based in Brazil, and the apparel CAD/CAM leader there, Audaces is now expanding to Europe and the US with its suite of end-to-end apparel manufacturing technologies.

“Production of a collection is currently only 25% of a collection’s cycle time, while 75% of the cycle is time used to design and define a collection,” explains Denise Damasio, Audaces International Sales Manager. “Imagine the return on investment by making faster decisions digitally and offering more time to manufacture the collection: better quality, lower shipping costs, quicker time to market,” she says.

4D components are integrated to systems outside of Audaces via open APIs.

“Our 3D renderings can even be printed on 3D printers,” Damasio explains.

Do These Jeans Make My Butt Look Big?

With ItsMeSee, the avatars will sit, bend, and move.

“You’ll not only be able to see how you look, but you’ll be able to see how the skinny jeans fit when [you’re] moving,” explains ItsMeSee founder and CEO George Santacroce. “Our virtual touch technology offers consumers an interaction with simulated product like never before. We allow them to digitally feel the product.”

The Austin-based start up aims to disrupt the online shopping experience by allowing consumers to interact with apparel in a whole new way—simulated product, on avatars in customizable environments, creating an interactive lifestyle experience while shopping on line.

“Think social shopping—inviting friends to your closet to try on clothes and see how you look as a group going to an event,” Santacroce explains. “Or how will I look on the slopes in this new ski gear? How will it move as I do?”

ItsMeSee is now building a library of avatars that will, through image recognition software, match a consumer’s silhouette. The consumer will then be able to slightly adjust the recommended avatar shape, color, and hair. Santacroce predicts 95% body spec accuracy from this method.

Enhancing the Consumer Experience
“The problem with online retail today is that the consumer has to buy two or three of the same item in different sizes to determine fit,” Santacroce explains. “If a retailer is lucky, she keeps one and returns the other two. Free shipping and free returns have further enabled this behavior, causing the cost of customer acquisition to rise, and further causing return rates to rise,” he says.

“We believe that this is a way to enhance the consumer experience, make a significantly higher level of engagement, of fun. Customer acquisition costs will go down, because people will go to brands that offer the ItsMeSee experience,” Santacroce says. “And returns will go down through digital product simulation.”

Surviving the New Digital World

According to Wallen, “In this new digital world, content is a channel instead of something you just distribute.”

“When you can make decisions faster than your adversary, then you win the battle,” he says.

The advances in smartphone technology are only going to make adoption of this new tech easier, creating new business models for retailers and fashion brands. And while many of the big players have the capital to make the behavior change, some still have the consumer in the old model. Internal friction often keeps brands where they are.

Perhaps that’s why Cisco’s outgoing CEO John Chambers has delivered a dire prediction that 40% of companies will be dead in ten years.

“It will become a digital world that will change our life, our health, our education, our business models at the pace of a technology company change,” Chambers says. Companies can’t “miss a market transition or a business model” or “underestimate your competitor of the future—not your competitor of the past,” he warns. “Either we disrupt, or we get disrupted,” he said. “If I’m not making you sweat, I should be.”