Shopping for that fashion-forward outfit can sometimes seem as daunting as finding a parking space at the mall on Christmas Eve. But help may be on the way for anyone who's ever fretted over fashion.
Five graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III College have invented the Smart.Mirror, a device designed for a store dressing room that offers suggestions on how to mix and match merchandise.
The Smart.Mirror uses Radio Frequency Identification Technology to detect what shoppers are trying on and to recommend other items in the store that may complement their look.
How does RFID technology work? All of a store's clothing is tagged with RFID chips embedded in stickers on tags already attached to the apparel. When a customer tries on an outfit, a RFID sensor in the dressing room reads the tags. The readings prompt images to appear on a touch screen LCD panel of other clothing that may enhance a customer's outfit. Store employees program the looks showcased on the panel and can update them as merchandise changes or new fashion trends unfold.
"Fashion changes all the time," said project manager Vincent Sethiwan, 22, of Bangkok, Thailand. "Sometimes a shirt doesn't match with [those] pants today, but it might be the next big fashion in the next two years. ... Our system would help those people who don't have that strong of a fashion sense."
The idea for the Smart.Mirror stemmed from an undergraduate course that group member Kevin Chia, 27, of Singapore, took while studying at Singapore Management University.
After coming to CMU as an exchange student, he shared the concept with Mr. Sethiwan when they took a course together requiring students to come up with an interesting solution to a problem.
Mr. Sethiwan later spoke to his entrepreneurship professor, Babs Carryer, about the idea. She told him about the Keith Block Entrepreneurship Fund, which awards money and mentoring to student inventors so they can begin transforming their ideas into working prototypes.
After submitting a proposal pitching the Smart.Mirror to a mostly faculty panel, the group was awarded $3,000 last spring. The project also was the only one to receive additional money this fall based on the group's progress during the summer.
"I think there is a need out there to do this, and I think technology is ideally suited to help solve this problem," said Ms. Carryer, the group's faculty adviser this semester.
The students have installed the first prototype of the Smart.Mirror at Charles Spiegel for Men in Squirrel Hill. After tagging around 500 items and placing the LCD panel and RFID reader at the center of the store, the Smart.Mirror went live last week and will remain at the store indefinitely.
"A lot of people come to a specialty store because they'd like some guidance and [the Smart.Mirror] would provide it," said owner Charles Spiegel. "I don't think that takes away from the store clerk at all."
Mr. Sethiwan agrees the Smart.Mirror probably won't put any clerks out of work.
"I think it is going to be something more complementary than a substitute," he said. "Basically [the store owner] will still need someone to be in the store, but maybe [the clerk] will not need that high of a level of fashion knowledge because the store owner can do the matching" of the merchandise on the Smart.Mirror.
The Smart.Mirror would cost a store roughly $1,000 per year for each device installed, the students estimate. The group also is brainstorming sales models that would give stores the option of purchasing or leasing the system.
Most high-end stores with a profit margin higher than $2.60 per item would likely be able to implement the Smart.Mirror without any significant financial strains, Mr. Sethiwan said. Stores that don't fall into this category may have to find other ways to cover the cost of the device.
In the long run, the benefits could outweigh these costs -- the Smart.Mirror provides stores with a new medium for promoting merchandise, possibly leading to an increase in sales.
Some members of the fashion community are excited about the possibilities the Smart.Mirror holds. A couple of high-end designers with lines at Charles Spiegel are "very, very, very interested in seeing this concept because it would allow them to display their concept the way they see it," Mr. Spiegel said.
The Smart.Mirror may not be the only invention of its kind vying for attention in the fashion industry.
The New York Times reported last spring that Intel, IBM and Microsoft were developing retail-related kiosks that would provide information about store promotions and make purchase suggestions.
"There are some other initiatives out there to do something similar," Ms. Carryer said. "Nothing has really gained any traction. ... It doesn't look like there's any systems really up and running."
The entrepreneurs behind the Smart.Mirror eventually hope to seek more stores where they can evaluate their prototype. They've also applied for additional funds that will help them take the Smart.Mirror to the next level.
That next level?
"Make this into a viable entity, keep [the students] here in Pittsburgh and grow [the Smart.Mirror] into a real business," Ms. Carryer said.
Sara Bauknecht can be reached at 412-263-3858 or email@example.com