This article was originally published in the first-ever DPC Report 2022. For more on digital product creation in fashion, and other perspectives on the sustainability impact of digital fashion, download the full DPC Report 2022 completely free of charge and ungated.

Initially, human-computer interaction was mainly via text commands. Then with the introduction of graphical user interfaces, we moved to the 2D experience that most of us have daily with our devices. The next step in this evolution is the use of 3D immersive technologies to deliver a change in our mode of interaction with technology. There are significant opportunities for the fashion value chain here: from designer-to-manufacturer collaboration to creative experimentation and the showcasing of concepts internally; to the consumer, by giving them better shopping experiences and driving more sales.

Unlike seeing a static render of a 3D garment in place of traditional product photography, this new mode of interaction will require more people than ever to access digital assets and environments in real-time. Whether they’re creating, viewing, or customising those assets, people from across the value chain will find themselves shifting from a well-worn, comfortable way of interaction with technology, to new frontiers like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). What do other industries have to teach fashion as it goes through this transition?

VR/AR/MR/XR – deconstructing the alphabet soup

In this context ‘immersive’ refers to a smorgasbord of technologies and experiences that take a person from merely spectating, to being a part of the action. These include well-established experiences that are rendered in real-time, such as games, as well as new real-time technologies like VR/AR/MR/XR (which are sometimes called the ‘alphabet soup’.)

First, to align on a few definitions. AR brings the physical and digital worlds together by superimposing digital elements onto the real world. This contrasts with VR, which is a fully immersive digital experience, complete with computer- generated imagery and audio. This usually requires using a head-mounted display (HMD) and haptic controllers. Mixed Reality (MR) experiences see users being able to interact with both physical and digital items and environments at the same time. Finally, extended reality (XR) is a catch-all term that covers all these different technologies. And all of these run in real-time.

Image provided by Diverge, from the Diverge x Sinead Gorey Phygital Collaboration.

‘Real-time render’ is another important concept worth defining. In computer graphics, ‘rendering’ is the creation of an image from a description of a scene or 3D model. Gaming development company Unity offers the following explanation: “images are calculated at a very high speed so that it looks like the scenes, which consist of multitudes of images, occur in real-time when players interact with your game. The main goal is to achieve the highest possible degree of photorealism at an acceptable minimum rendering speed which is usually 24 frames per second. That is the minimum a human eye needs in order to create the illusion of movement.”

This is distinct from many of the use cases for 3D garments, footwear, and accessories, which are created in real-time (using one of the many popular 3D design and simulation tools) but which are then rendered out to flat images or pre-rendered video for use in eCommerce catalogues, social media and so on. A real-time experience is one where the end user is interacting with an environment and / or 3D objects that are being rendered by a graphics (and often simulation) engine as that interaction takes place.

A videogame (i.e. something you “play”) is the most familiar use-case for real-time rendering, but other industries have also pursued real-time experiences for a range of purposes. Architects walk clients through proposals put together in Unreal Engine, translated f rom CAD files. Car buyers customise their vehicle by swapping materials and alloys on a model being rendered in real-time. Filmmakers pre- visualise using virtual cameras. And all the XR experiences listed above require a greater or lesser degree of interaction with digital assets in the moment.

Immersive experiences in other industries

So as fashion begins its foray into using immersive technologies, it does so on the heels of sectors that have significant experience immersing customers and creators into their products. The three mentioned above (automotive, architecture/construction, and entertainment) all make extensive use of real-time visualisation as well as AR and VR, and they have already proven the value of this shift in modes of interaction.

In the automotive space, immersive experiences have been known to boost sales, reduce the costs of research and development, and capture the customer’s imagination by way of virtual test drives. Notable examples include Audi and Ford. Audi has included a VR entertainment system (called Holoride) in select vehicles, where passengers can blend what they see on the actual journey with AR elements via motion-synchronisation technology. Ford has an immersive virtual showroom, where, using AR, customers can tap on 3D hotspots to discover features, and virtually design and then view their ideal vehicle. Ford also uses VR to train technicians on how to service and maintain certain vehicles, without the need to access a physical model.

Architecture is another industry that has seen meaningful benefits by using immersive technologies. One such example is for the transformation of computer-aided design (CAD) models off the screen and into the real world. Models can be viewed from various angles, and as if on location. Virtual tours are also popular, as architects can quickly create guided tours that allow for tailored navigation. Global design and architecture firm Gensler cited VR as an integral part of building tech giant Nvidia’s 750,000-square-foot California HQ. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, Nvidia wanted to maximise quality of light in key workspaces. By using simulations in VR, it was learned that fewer skylights were needed to achieve the correct lighting effect designers were looking for.

Image provided by Gorodenkoff.

These two industries overlap in that they can consist of various individual disciplines working together on the same project. This siloed way of working means that communication between parties can make processes complicated and time-consuming. Using immersive technologies improves communication and sharing of ideas, as all parties gain access to crucial information more quickly. Both industries also require a great deal of consideration from the consumer or client, and using immersive technology allows for the level of customisation needed in order to go ahead with the purchase or project.

However, it is the gaming space that might be the industry best known for harnessing the power of immersive technologies. Gaming has long been a favourite pastime for many, far before photorealistic real-time rendering was achieved. As of 2022, Vogue Business reports that the gaming industry has more than 2.7 billion gamers worldwide. Although the popularity of VR in gaming is arguably not yet at its peak, it is believed that its appeal will continue to grow as this type of play interests traditional gamers as well as more casual players who are curious about the experience. Immersive experiences are certainly different to the mobile, PC, or console ways of play – in terms of hardware and even in the emotional experience – as being immersed can feel like one has less control. However, on the other hand, it is an opportunity for players to enjoy a more personal and thereby fulfilling experience.

Speaking of hardware, another important contribution from gaming is the use of HMDs, colloquially known as headsets. High-end hardware for VR headsets such as the Oculus Quest Pro and the Valve Index currently retail for thousands. This price may be one of the barriers to entry, especially considering that the devices can be clunky and uncomfortable to wear. “I think that the most important aspect in the evolution of the hardware of AR and VR is that its usage needs to be smooth for the user,” says Diana Perfilieva, founder and CEO of Diverge, a Metaverse fashion brand created to bring high-end fashion aesthetics into web3. VR headsets are in their very early stage, and you can’t use them for a long time as you feel dizzy. As for AR, I think when we switch to wearable devices like Google Glasses, the experience will make much more sense.”

Upcoming competitors include Meta’s Quest 3, Sony’s PlayStation VR 2, and Apple’s offering rumoured to be called Apple Glasses. The latter has been rumoured for years, and could be set to be released as soon as January 2023.

Fashionʼs take on immersive technologies – so far

There has already been considerable hype downstream when it comes to immersive experiences in the fashion space. Although slow to e-commerce and social media purchasing, select fashion brands and retailers are looking to stay ahead of the curve this time and are exploring virtual commerce or ‘v-commerce’ as it is coming to be known. This is perhaps where the most impactful commercial opportunity lies: creating unique shopping journeys, fostering a competitive edge, and increasing sales and brand loyalty.

The most common reasons cited for wanting to use technology such as AR and VR are to see what items look like on the consumer and to get a 360-degree visualisation of a product. AR and VR are thus becoming more of a utility than an amusement when shopping. Companies that have experimented in this area include Gucci, Zara, ASOS, American Apparel, Lacoste, and Timberland.

The 2021 Global Report for the ‘Future of Shopping’ by Snap Inc. surveyed 20,000 consumers across 12 global markets. Significantly, 56% of consumers who have used AR when shopping claim that it encouraged them to make a purchase, and 1 in 4 shoppers would prefer to buy luxury with AR, rather than visit a physical store. Additionally, 4 in 10 US consumers state that not being able to see and try out products is the most significant factor that put them off from shopping online. The global virtual fitting room market is projected to grow from $3.5 billion to $12.97 billion from 2021 to 2028. While stated interest does not always translate to action, these numbers, suggest a steady change in how consumers perceive AR and VR.

Images provided by Diverge.

As of 2022, we have also seen various gaming collaborations with luxury brands, including Moschino x Sims, Louis Vuitton x League of Legends, and Gucci x Roblox – to name just a few. This topic has been covered extensively by The Interline here.

For designers, there is so much to consider when designing a new collection. Along with choosing the materials and creating the clothing, attention must be given to how to market the products in a way that does not lose the essence of the brand but reaches the most consumers possible. Additionally, the fashion industry has now evolved to require brands and manufacturers to consider digital product creation (DPC) and the new world of complexity and opportunity it creates – not to mention the asset creation burden that now falls on creative and commercial teams who have a moving target in real-time XR experiences as their final deliverables.

Among brands leveraging immersive technologies in-house and downstream are US-based Rebecca Minkoff, French luxury brand Balmain, and digital fashion house The Fabricant. Using VR, Rebecca Minkoff maps out the optimal layouts for its own stores as well at department stores, designed to see what will garner the most consumer sales. Alongside this, the brand creates products digitally before going into physical production. These experiments are also good for gathering data and making decisions driven by consumer behaviour for future seasons. Balmain has in the past used CLO (a 3D fashion design software program) to streamline the design development process using photorealistic 3D images. Lastly, no stranger to technology, The Fabricant makes use of ‘interactive look books’ where customers can view products as 360-degree animations.

The potential of immersive experiences in fashion

Personalisation of avatars

In new online universes that we could spend more and more of our lives in as time passes, the importance of personalised avatars wearing digital prodcuts may play a significant role. Ziqi and Yunjia Xing, founders of digital fashion brand XTENDED iDENTiTY (Xi), believe that self-expression and interoperability will be two key features when it comes to digital products and the use of avatars. “Designers have to think and design smartly,” Ziqi Xing says. “People have very little attention nowadays, therefore it is essential to create in a way that will engage people.” This creation extends beyond apparel and into how we look online. In their latest collection, the brand exhibits one of its pillars: to make everyone feel represented, helping minorities and the LGBTQ+ community to find their place in the crypto world by using non-binary digital fashion as a bridge between true identity and web3. “It is important that digital designs and avatars are available on multiple platforms; to not limit them to runways but to ensure their utility in virtual meeting apps, games, and many more outlets,” adds Yunjia Xing.

Image provided by XTENDED iDENTiTY (Xi).

With the creation of photorealistic avatars using one’s smartphone or tablet, it is likely we will easily be able to operate across digital platforms looking like ourselves or in a more fantastical way, should we choose. The questions around interoperability, however, are a bit more complicated because of the decentralised nature of web3.

Creating digital showrooms

As digital products in fashion become more ubiquitous, so grows the need to adapt how they will be shown and interacted with by progressively wider audiences. Ordinarily, apparel might be shown in an atelier, a studio, or a store. Thanks to tech such as Microsoft HoloLens, it is possible to scan a room, capture the spatial information, as well as create high-quality 3D holograms. This allows designers to easily create a virtual space to showcase their clothing. With the right software and the right avatar, this could enhance the ‘try before you buy’ shopping experience for consumers tenfold. In terms of environments to showcase items of clothing and accessories, the possibility to create somewhere entirely different from the inside of a room is also possible with AR and VR. Thus, alongside the practicality, the experience can be one that is unique and enlivening to whoever views it.

Before this, however, there are a few substantial challenges to be overcome. “There is a degree of education and training that must happen with the creatives that are making beautiful digital clothing. There needs to be an understanding of how designers use cutting-edge software, including its limitations” says Badrriya Henry. Henry is the founder and Managing Director of Fashion Foresight, a fashion consulting agency whose mission is to connect fashion and retail brands to the future by way of technology. Since 2019, one of Henry’s main focuses has been on VR. To this end, Semblance World was born: an online platform that mirrors the luxury lifestyle in Dubai. What started out as a project got the attention of Epic Games, who awarded Henry an Epic Mega Grant to expand her vision. “I think that is what we’re lacking at the moment” she shares. “Fashion brands want to experiment but need the right space to do it in.”

She goes on to explain that she has seen incredible digital garments that cannot be supported in a real-time immersive space because the polygon count is too high. In real-time environments, moving objects consist of polygons (e.g., triangles), where at each timestep a new position of each corner of the polygon must be calculated. Higher resolution means a higher number of polygons, which implies that thousands of computations must be performed. High polygon counts require high processing power, and if this is absent it can result in slow playback times or the image just not appearing altogether. Henry remains optimistic: “I think it’s only you face these kind challenges when you’re in the trenches, building.” Building she is, as she recently announced that Semblance World is the host of an Africa Fashion Week Middle East (AFWME) showroom, the first of its kind.

Images provided by Diverge.

As evidenced by the above, Game engines such as Epic’s Unreal, Unity, and the creative toolbox provided by the Roblox Corporation have played a major role in fashion’s biggest collaborations in creating spectacular environments. However, creating such environments takes an exceptional amount of skill that only bigger brands and retailers may have the resources for. There is an exception in Epic Games’s Twinmotion platform: the easy-to-use, real-time 3D immersion software that can create high-quality images, and standard or 360-degree VR videos with limited experience, and with integration to existing CAD tools. With this software, it is possible for brands and retailers of all kinds to create virtual environments into which they can drop high-quality fashion-related assets to deliver real-time experiences.

Final thoughts

As Diana Perfilieva puts it: “at this stage, we can only speculate how things will look like in the future, but I hope that immersive spaces respond to user (and customer) requests about things that are not available in the physical world. You should be able to manifest yourself in the most unexpected ways.” The immersive fashion space holds vast opportunities for creativity and efficiency upstream and downstream, with the pace of change happening at a rapid rate.

Today, it seems that the focus is on the consumer, but there is much to be gained by designers who embrace immersive technologies to complement the creation of their products by building extraordinary environments to showcase them in. And while fashion has never been short of fantastical backdrops and meticulously-staged but passive lifestyle photoshoots, the trend line is now towards these being delivered in active, engaging, immersive real-time.