Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Businesses scale back their investments in technology – except for cloud and automation, two pillars of digital transformation.
This week, analyst firm Gartner announced that global spending on IT was likely to see a significant hit in 2020 – an overall contraction of 8% year on year – as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on essentially every industry on the planet.
Interestingly, though, not every area of spend is expected to come up short; public cloud services are expected to grow by up to 19%, automation technologies (including robotics) are also pegged for growth, and cloud transformation projects the firm expected to see in 2024 could be fast-tracked for completion in just two years’ time.
In the current circumstances, it’s little wonder that brands and retailers are shy of spending on new devices and data centres – both of which are expected to see sharp declines. But by the same logic, it’s hardly surprising that companies are looking to accelerate the key pillars of their digital transformation strategies. With an extremely uncertain timeline on any sort of return to normality – although The Interline does believe retail will reopen, with new responsibilities sooner rather than later – the need to work digitally, from design to social commerce – is more pressing than ever.
And just like the retail market itself, where a brand or retailer having already taken the right steps to prepare for a digital-first future, the technology vendors who have properly architected their solutions to run on the public cloud will be the ones who come out ahead.
Amazon spends behind the scenes to envision a COVID-free supply chain.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, fashion retail needs to be paying greater attention to Amazon. Far more than just being the same old monolithic marketplace competing with your sales channels, Amazon has turned the pandemic into a chance to consolidate its power through legislation, suppress virus statistics to keep its warehouses running, and secure contracts to be a private, last-mile deliverer of COVID-19 testing kits here in the UK, where healthcare has been public since the aftermath of the second world war.
It’s the latter that came back into the news in the last week, as Jeff Bezos fielded a shareholder call where he announced the company would be reinvesting up to $4 billion in expected profits into research into the new coronavirus.
As tempting as it might feel to see this as a philanthropic endeavour, consider the source. Bezos is not Bill Gates (who has been something of a beacon of responsible wealth and education for many years now, but particularly at the moment) and where profit is being funnelled back into new initiatives on that scale, you can guarantee those initiatives have sky-high revenue potential in the longer run.
To understand a possible reason that Amazon is investing so heavily in protecting at-risk people like warehouse workers and delivery drivers from coronavirus, consider that many of those people are at-risk because nearly a million of them work for Amazon. What looks like a project for social good could instead be a massive feat of supply chain and distribution re-engineering, creating a network that can be certified COVID-free thanks to Amazon’s tendrils creeping into healthcare.
If the concept of one company cornering the market in computer vision fuelled cashier-less stores weren’t scary enough, it could be time to think about how you might compete against Prime delivery that’s not just quick and convenient, but also insulated from the disease that’s ravaging the rest of the world. Because if consumers have a choice between buying from a brand they love, or buying a private label approximation that comes with a guarantee of being virus-free from the warehouse to doorstep, love may not win out against a feeling of safety.
Unreal Engine 5 takes a running leap forward for real-time graphics, and fashion could follow.
Normally the announcement of a new game engine wouldn’t merit a mention in fashion circles, but this week’s unveiling of Unreal Engine 5 – running on consumer-grade hardware – is different for two reasons.
First: because of the engine we’re talking about.
It may have originally been designed exclusively for videogames (members of The Interline team remember playing the original Unreal, for which the engine is named, on PC) but Unreal Engine (UE) is now a crucial real-time visualisation tool in moviemaking, architecture, industrial and automotive design and, yes, retail, where it already powers 3D product and store visualisation.
UE is also the engine and creative toolkit behind cultural phenomenon Fortnite – where artist Travis Scott drew a live audience in excess of 12 million for a virtual concert – as well as being perhaps the most accessible, multi-industry platform for creating real-time 3D assets, characters, worlds and experiences.
The crossover between gaming, VFX and fashion has been percolating for some time, but there is no question that it has come to head during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s most approachable face is the ubiquitous Animal Crossing – which hosts everything from brand-approved fashion shows to a popular late-night talk show in its pared-back graphical style – but a totally different, more photoreal tack is being taken elsewhere. Look for exclusive coverage of both angles from The Interline as we enter our final weeks of focusing on 3D.
The second reason is the sheer progress that UE5 represents over prior engines in terms of accessibility and fidelity. Without wanting to get too technical (there’s plenty of that available here) UE5 flings the doors wide open for rendering film-quality assets in real-time. Typically, real-time engines require compromise from artists and designers in terms of the geometric complexity (raw model and mesh data) they can show on consumer hardware, but UE5 includes both a new lighting model and a new way of representing model detail that should allow for scanned assets of the highest detail to be imported straight into real-time scenes.
Those same artistic limitations have previously affected the potential for real-time rendering of garments and materials in particular. The Interline predicts some exciting announcements around the applications of these techniques – as well as more generally around digital material scanning and real-time visualisation – for apparel very soon.