CARY, N.C. — A young woman enters a darkened chamber, steps onto white footprints and grips the bars beside her. Black curtains close, a Motown song blasts, and disco-like lights flash for 8 seconds.
It's not an amusement park ride; it's a body scanner that records precise body measurements for a made-to-fit garment. Its makers think it just might cure the dressing-room blues.
"The scanner has two really basic purposes. One is to help you predict the best ready-to-wear size, and then the other is for mass customization--to have garments created specifically for you or me," said Melanie Pittman, manager of marketing and member relations of TC2, the Cary research company that developed the 3-D Body Measurement System over the last five years.
The 3-D body scanner is 12 feet wide and 20 feet long. Six cameras mounted on towers in a triangle capture flashes of white light to map a 3-D "point cloud"--300,000 data points in space defining the body's skin.
In 53 seconds, a computer program interprets the data points, displays an image and prints out detailed measurements.
"The scanner can help predict what could fit you best or it could tell you this is not going to fit you no matter what size you try on," said Judson Early, TC2 corporate vice president and director of research and development.
TC2--Textile Clothing Technology Corp.--is a nonprofit research corporation subsidized by the textile industry. Its mission is to improve the competitiveness of the U.S. soft goods industry, Pittman said.
The body scanner is considered a first step toward mass customization, the textile industry's answer to the fact that standard sizes don't fit more than half the population.
Industry officials say they believe that, once a database is built with scanners' results, the industry will be able to make better-fitting garments.
"The sizing systems are made to be proportional, and people aren't. The bodies don't fit the sizing systems," says Cynthia Istook, a researcher at N.C. State College of Textiles.
Present clothing sizes are based on data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the late 1930s, but changes are afoot.
American Standards Testing and Materials, a private nonprofit organization, is conducting a survey, to be completed in 2002, of sizing standards.
Sirvart Mellian, program manager for sizing at the Navy textile research facility in Massachusetts and chairman of the ASTM Body Measurement for Apparel Sizing Committee, is working with the automotive, aerospace and apparel industries to use 3-D scanning to create an up-to-date size database.
The database will represent U.S. men and women between the ages of 18 and 65--a "sample population representative of our demographics, like Caucasian, white, black, Asian and Hispanic and their age," Mellian said.
When the survey is complete, the data may help change the way clothing is sized. ASTM will recommend new sizing standards, but it will be up to the apparel industry to decide whether to accept them.
For now, the 3-D Body Measurement System may be one of the better tools for matching people to clothing. But its $100,000 price tag may put it out of the reach of most; just four scanners have been sold since the units went on the market a year ago.
The U.S. Navy bought one of the scanners to help give sailors a better uniform fit. Clarity Fit of Minneapolis is demonstrating the technology with a custom-fit manufacturer in New York and designing custom-fit patterns for home sewers.
The N.C. State University College of Textiles bought one in May for teaching purposes. The fourth unit was sold to an undisclosed customer.
TC2 president Peter Butenhoff believes scanners will find their way into major metropolitan areas. "Over time, they'll be deployed more broadly."
Butenhoff says he thinks body scanners someday will be available to ordinary shoppers. Several stores in a mall, for example, might share a scanner.
"It does take up a lot of space," Istook said of N.C. State's scanner, which includes two changing rooms. "Even though it might be expensive, it should cut down the number of returns for poorly fitting clothing, and should reduce markdowns."
High school seniors learning about textile technology tried out the 3-D scanner at N.C. State a few months ago.
"It was a quick and easy way to get your measurements. It was very convenient," said Christina Sarubbi, a 17-year-old from Asheville.
Lashawnda McKinnon, 23, an N.C. State graduate student, chose to focus on the body scanner in her master's thesis.
McKinnon measured 60 subjects both the old-fashioned way and with the body scanner. Ninety-nine percent of the subjects preferred scanning to tape-measuring, she said.
The scanner may require some fine-tuning. Some people disliked having to change into tight exercise shorts and step behind dark curtains. Istook says N.C. State plans to brighten the color scheme and create a more inviting dressing area.
"The possibilities of . . . using the body scanner are endless," says Karla Simmons, 29, an N.C. State graduate student. Her thesis is on the technologies driving mass customization.
"I don't think it's one of those things that's used for a few years and then goes away; it's one of those things that's going to grow," Simmons says.