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Fashion Imagery in the Next Dimension

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In his latest exclusive for WhichPLM, resident expert Eric Fulmer (VP Operations & Strategic Growth at Capture Integration), explores fashion imagery from the visual content perspective. He explores the relationship between designer and technologist – a relationship in need of deeper collaboration.

The radical transformation of the fashion industry by technological upheaval is well under way, and touches every aspect of the business. Technology is impacting how garments are designed, constructed, manufactured, distributed, priced, marketed, sold, and even worn. Since I live in the world of enabling fashion marketing through optimizing production workflows for visual content and metadata, my take on the fashion technology revolution comes from this very focused vantage point. Even in a process that was “digitized” over a decade ago, through the transition from film to digital photography, there is a more extreme transformation just beginning as we see the early migration from two-dimensional (flat) imagery to three-dimensional (virtual) experiences. The full impact of this richer content interaction is currently unknown, but it will likely be far greater than the transition from analog to digital.

Photography has been with us since 1826 and color photography since 1861. Although much has changed in the methods and processes of photography since those early days, it has remained primarily a two-dimensional medium. Despite increases in resolution, color fidelity, and sharpness, the experience of interacting with a photograph is not significantly dissimilar from the one Joseph Nicéphore Niépce experienced when he viewed the very first photograph the world has ever known, which he shot from an upstairs window of his estate in France.

Human beings have a very rich sense of spatial awareness, and the dimensionality of an experience is highly significant to how we interpret it. We’ve all been fooled by simple visual tricks that rely on our brain’s strong desire to apply dimensionality to what we perceive. Two lines drawn to intersect on a page instantly become a road extending over the horizon. This primal need to square our visual input with the three-dimensional world we live in has been consistently stymied by the two-dimensional limitation of so many of our images, which fundamentally distorts the subject matter. For those who haven’t explored it, a quick Google search of Mercator versus other methods of cartographic projection will shortly reveal that we have all been taught a dramatically distorted view of the Earth based on the limitations of displaying a sphere on a two-dimensional map.

As fashion brands attempt to extend their reach beyond physical store experiences to impact customers in the digital world, these visual limitations continue to reduce conversion by undermining a viewer’s confidence that the three-dimensional object they are interested in will actually fit and look the way it is depicted in two-dimensional space. Add their healthy skepticism based on the now-universal understanding of the magic of retouching, and it is no wonder that customers doubt what they see on a screen, but trust what they can touch and experience in the real world.

But technology is beginning to close this gap, with an array of tools from 360 degree product “spins” to augmented reality and virtual reality, that promise to create a more organic and life-like interaction with visual content. As always, there are many barriers to making such an exponential leap, from hardware to software to bandwidth to standardization. It will certainly take years for the cutting edge technology that is consistently over-hyped at these early stages to migrate to the consumer level, and the resulting offerings are not always adopted by the market. It can be tempting to leap headlong into these new technologies because of their breathless promises, but there is good reason to be skeptical until many of the technological and practical concerns shake out.

As a photo technologist, I am always impressed by the lengthening of the photography “long tail.” With the front edge of the wave now pushing forward into virtual reality, the tail still extends all the way back to shoeboxes full of decaying photo negatives packed in non-climate controlled storage units all around the world. My fashion clients would love to embrace these new three-dimensional forms of imagery to dazzle their customers, but are currently challenged to simply produce enough basic product photography to merchandise their full collection in a timely way before the next season hits. And, of course, seasonality is a shorter and shorter cycle as “fast fashion” disrupts the industry. Fashion brands are still struggling to accurately track where their physical merchandise samples are located (and who they owe them back to), much less capture compelling imagery of the product from every angle.

Soon there may be an era where the physical sample is no more, and a designer can render a single 3D object that serves as a prototype for merchant approval, a blueprint for production launch, and the visual subject matter for consumer merchandising. But a quick look at the production tools being utilized in the fashion space today (spreadsheets, hand-built mood boards, and poor quality photo lighting techniques, to name just a few) makes this brave new world seem very far away indeed.

Fashion is at a crossroads where technology is forcing the industry to change, yet the technology solutions being offered rarely live up to their lofty claims. It is incumbent upon technology vendors to better understand the “jobs to be done” in the fashion space and develop tools that address actual market problems, rather than cool gadgets that play well to the investor class but fail in the cold light of today’s hyper-competitive apparel market.

I challenge my fellow technologists to look at both the brand side and the consumer side of the fashion market and to understand the product development journey as well as the customer buying journey. We must seek to create a seamless bridge between these two very different worlds. This is an industry in crisis that is ripe for radical transformation, but transformation will not happen without a fusion of two sparks: designer and technologist. The yin and yang of these interdependent halves must come together as a unified whole to meet the demanding (and distracted) eye of today’s fashion consumers.

Eric Fulmer Eric Fulmer has been a pioneer in digital photography and digital asset workflow since the early 1990s when he joined Fuji’s Digital Imaging Division, where he worked with major corporations and cultural institutions including The Smithsonian Institution and The Metropolitan Museum of Art as they adopted digital workflows. Later, Eric worked with leading photography studios at both Leaf and Phase One, pioneers in digital capture systems and image processing workflows. He has led DAM integrations at major government institutions and played multiple roles in a startup SaaS platform vendor providing end-to-end creative production solutions for the world’s largest fashion and retail brands. He now leads the software team at Capture Integration, developing the ShotFlow One visual content production platform.