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One Part Geek, One Part Chic: XR Fashion with Electric Runway CEO Amanda Cosco

The technology we talk about on this show is pretty cool, but what’s function without form, right? Thankfully, there’s plenty of both to go around, as Electric Runway’s founder Amanda Cosco drops by to talk about. TL;DR — there’s a lot of cool ways to use XR to stay in-fashion, from virtual try-ons, to AR-enabled hair colour-changing mirrors.

Alan: Today’s guest is a great friend of mine; Amanda Cosco, CEO of Electric Runway. One part geek, the other part chic; Amanda Cosco is a leading voice in the intersection of fashion and technology. Through her work with Electric Runway, Amanda is committed to bridging the gap between these two seemingly opposite industries, to help humanize technology, and help push the fashion industry into the future. In addition to contributing to notable publications such as WWD, Toronto Star, and Wearable, Amanda shares her insights through talks given on both local and international stages. She’s made several radio and TV appearances, including CBC’s The Goods and TVO’s The Agenda. She’s been recognized as a top woman in wearable technology, as well as a key thinker on the future of fashion. As a consultant, Amanda shares her expertise in the innovation economy to help future-proof business models and save her clients time and money. Amanda earned a master’s degree of arts from Ryerson in Toronto, and prior to that she graduated from York University. She holds a certificate of digital media skills from OCAD University. And she’s the chair of the Fashion and Business Management Professional Advisory Committee at Centennial College, as well as the Board of Champions at the Bata Shoe Museum. If you want to learn more about Amanda and her company, Electric Runway, visit Amanda, welcome to the show.

Amanda: Thanks so much for having me, Alan, and thanks for that kind introduction.

Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure. I’m so excited. You are a leader in this industry. You’ve been in the wearable space forever. Tell us how you got started in this.

Amanda: Well, Electric Runway actually began with a future fashion runway show that I curated for the Maker Festival in Toronto. So the brand very much has its roots in performance and the actual runway, but it’s evolved over the years. And I had been a part of the burgeoning wearable technology scene in Toronto. And it wasn’t until I covered a technology festival in Toronto and had the opportunity to interview a cyborg — a self-identified cyborg — for the Globe and Mail and did a story on him. It wasn’t until then that I realized that wearable computing is absolutely going to change us, as humans. And that’s when I decided to focus my career as a journalist and entrepreneur on technology on the body. And that’s also the time that Electric Runway began. And it quickly became the umbrella under which I do lots of speaking and events and curation, in order to just bring everything together, that’s going on in this exciting industry. And what’s really great about it, is that being focused on fashion and beauty gives me a really specific lens, through which I can view technological innovations like augmented reality and virtual reality. So, rather than trying to cover everything that’s happening in technology — which is impossible these days, because technology is disrupting every industry — I’m allowed to sit in this niche of fashion, beauty, retail, consumer experiences and really just talk about how emerging technologies are brushing elbows with these innovations.

Alan: Incredible. So you’ve seen a lot of technologies in the fashion space. With respect to virtual/augmented/mixed reality, I know you hosted an event — about a year ago — I was at, and all of the mannequins had VR headsets on them.

Amanda: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]

Alan: It’s incredible. They were all decorated, all nice. They had like… it was like Bejeweled VR headsets.

Amanda: Yeah. We were trying to… well, it’s funny, that conference — it was called In-store, and it was an immersive event on the future of retail — and we were really trying to highlight the most prominent technologies that were of interest to the retail industry, and they were augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. And I had decided on those themes in advance. And shortly after the event, Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook got on stage at the Facebook annual conference. And he said the three technologies that Facebook is going to be focusing on in the coming years are augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. So I guess Zuckerberg and I were on the same wavelength that day. [laughs]

Alan: [laughs] Awesome. That’s something that very few people can say.

Amanda: [laughs] Yeah.

Alan: So let me ask you a question. What is one XR technology that you’ve seen really deployed well? Because a lot of people listening to this podcast are retailers that are thinking, “how can we leverage this technology?” So, what are some of the things that you’ve seen, that have worked really well?

Amanda: Yeah. So, of course, we’ve seen a lot of gimmicks, right? So we saw Zara tried to have augmented reality models in-store, where the consumer would have to download an app and they’d be able to see this mini runway show. We’ve seen lots of virtual mirrors and… a lot of the time it’s all hype, right? When it comes down to, “what’s the return on investment for this? How does it connect to your business goals?” There’s a disconnect there.

But what we’re actually seeing is, when it comes to fashion and beauty, there’s a strong data case to be made for allowing consumers to try on things before they buy them, on their live video, on their smartphone. And this augmented reality technology can be embedded into your live video of your app, on your smartphone or it can be embedded into the mirrors in your in-store retail experience.

One example that comes to mind that I covered early on, is Sephora’s collaboration with Toronto based ModiFace. ModiFace, before it was acquired for L’Oreal, worked with various beauty companies to embed AR technology into their mirrors in-store, as well as into the apps on smartphones, so that people could actually try on lipstick before they purchased it. And this was a real great example of how augmented reality can connect to your business goals, because of course, once you decided on the lipstick that you liked, you could put it right in your cart. All of the lipsticks were connected to an actual product in this Sephora store. So you can imagine how much work went into categorizing and cataloging the different colors and finishes of lipstick. And now that’s connected to a shopping cart, so you can actually shop in augmented reality without going into the store and having to try on the lipstick. You can try it on at home and then it’s shipped to you directly. So the try-before-you-buy experience is really exciting for me. And I think that there’s a lot of potential in this area.

Alan: You know, it’s interesting. I wrote an article about six months ago called Augmented Reality’s First Killer App: VTOs, or Virtual Try-Ons. And I agree with you 100 percent. If ModiFace — which is a Toronto based company, and you’re based in Toronto as well — if ModiFace had continued going the way they were going, they probably would have been working with every single makeup company in the world. But L’Oreal being the forward-thinking company that it is really made, — in my opinion, — an amazing acquisition with buying ModiFace. And it left Sephora and these other companies out in the cold, because they took the technology with them.

Amanda: Yeah. And the beauty industry is so competitive, and there’s so many new brands emerging that are direct-to-consumer. For example, like Kylie Cosmetics and with Kim Kardashian and her contour palette, there’s just absolutely so much out there, and there’s so much competition that you need to be digital first. You need to have a digital strategy in place. You need to be able to connect with new consumers who are increasingly mobile focused. So it wasn’t just a fun, “hey, I can make my lips different colors.” It is that, but it’s connected to commerce. So I do think it is the killer app. And like I said, I think there’s a ton to be developed when it comes to trying on clothes in the future.

Alan: I agree. I think that’s a much more difficult problem. One of the things that I thought would have been a really difficult problem, but you recorded a video — I believe it was at CES — of you trying on a virtual try-on for hair colors?

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely.

Alan: And that video went viral — and I’ll put it in the show notes, if anyone is interested — but yeah, tell us how that happened.

Amanda: It seems it was my 15 minutes of Internet fame, but I got on the plane home from CES — which is the annual technology conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, as I’m sure your listeners know — and I got home and as I landed, my phone was exploding with messages after I turned it off airplane mode. My friends were saying, you’re on the front page of Reddit, you’re on the front page of Imgur. And it was this video, as you said, that I had recorded from the show floor at CES. I was at the retail innovations area of CES, and it was a quieter area of the show. But of course, with Electric Runway, we go in to technology events and conferences looking for that fashion and beauty and consumer experience angles. I was really interested in what they were showcasing in the retail lounge. And yeah, there was this company and it’s called Perfect Corp. That’s their real name — Perfect Corp. And they were showing off this augmented reality technology that’s very similar to the Sephora experience with ModiFace, which allowed you to try the lipstick on. This was actually for trying different hair colors, which I thought was really great because as a woman who’s dyed her hair before, you’re always worried how is it going to look? And with so many different hair colors being popular right now, like pink and blue, you were able to really have a lot of fun with it. So it was actually embedded into the mirror at the Perfect Corp booth. And it’s called Beauty Cam app. And you can actually — again, on your live video — try on the different hair color.

But what impressed so many people with that was how accurate the tracking was. So, I have asymmetrical hair; one side of my hair is short, the other is a little bit longer. So with hair apps, I’ve seen a lot of like “coloring outside the lines,” let’s call it. But this one was so on point. And as you moved, you saw the color move with each individual strand of hair. And it was so seamless that it looked like magic. And I really believe that that’s why the video went so viral, was because it was really just this moment of magic. And I really believe that when technology works at it’s best, it feels like magic and it creates that awe inspiring experience where you’re saying to yourself, “wow, what else could I do with this technology or what else can be done?” And this looks like The Matrix. It’s the future, you know? So I think that’s why it was so viral, and why so many people decided to share it. It was just that magical experience.

Alan: It was really cool. I know I shared it, and it got thousands of views on LinkedIn.

So, we were talking about the mobile smartphones and using AR from the phones or the camera feeds, Snapchat’s using it extensively. Facebook’s got their Facebook face filters and stuff. What about actual wearable glasses? What have you seen? Is there anybody using that in the fashion world now? I know one thing that I saw was Magic Leap partnered with H&M and… Moshino?

Amanda: Moschino, yeah, absolutely. So there’s a lot of experimentation in terms of smart glasses in the fashion and beauty industry right now, for different use cases. It kind of feels like how augmented or virtual reality was maybe four years ago. With the smart glasses lots of companies are trying to figure out how they can use this. And one of the experiences, one that you mentioned, I recently saw at Collision Conference in Toronto and H&M had partnered with the Magic Leap to allow attendees to design their T-shirt in mixed reality using the Magic Leap. So it’s kind of a playful, high tech take on the T-shirt giveaway that you normally see at conferences. In this case, attendees were fitted with a Magic Leap 1 and they had a blank canvas — in this case, it was a black T-shirt — and they could pull in different augmented reality elements and place them on the T-shirt where they liked. And once they were ready, they were able to actually print the T-shirt at the conference — they had a little team of screen printers there — and they took the digital file and made you a T-shirt in real time, right there while you waited. So you got to say, like, I customized this T-shirt and it’s a great story. H&M has this big sustainability initiative, where they’re recycling lots of used clothing. And so lots of the T-shirts came from that recycling program. It also positions them next to Magic Leap, which is future, really, of mixed reality experiences.

I think it was a great campaign. It was great for the users. It was great for awareness. And it really provoked us to think about how the Magic Leap and other mixed reality headsets can be used as a design tool.

Alan: Very cool, yeah. I actually was at Collision and I tried the other demos and not that one. I didn’t even know about it. Now I feel left out. Magic Leap, what are we doing? We’ve got to get in there.

Amanda: I know. Well, Collision Conference, again, was really big. I think it was a conference that was bigger than most people expected for Toronto. And there’s so much there that you really had to pick and choose what you did. Though, of course, as soon as I saw fashion, I went right for it.

Alan: I saw “Healthcare in Smart Cities” and went for that. I wish I’d got a T-shirt that I designed in augmented reality. How cool is that?

Amanda: Yeah.

Alan: So what are some other things that you’ve seen? I know you’ve been working on some stuff as well. So I want to give you the opportunity to share those things. I know some of them are probably still under NDA, but what are the things that you’ve seen?

Amanda: Well, because Electric Runway is half media and half consulting. So, we have a B2B side as well as media arm — and on the media side, we’re really covering everything that’s out there. And what I’ve seen, when I’m wearing my journalist hat, is a lot of experimentation and play in mixed reality with lots of companies just trying to see what’s going to work. And again, separating what is a gimmick and what’s going to actually have a long term effect. So we talked about the try-before-you-buy experience. I’ve seen lots of merchandising tools that actually allow in-store employees to use a headset to basically download information about how a store should be merchandised, whether that’s a grocery store or an apparel brand, which is a digital innovation compared to the way it used to be done. It used to be that lead merchandiser would have to go to all the different locations and make sure that there was a uniformity to all of the different displays, so that you’d have brand consistency, but now you can actually do this for virtual reality where you’re showing how a store shelf or a display window should look.

We’re also seeing in warehousing smart glasses being used for the pickers, the people who are actually going and getting those items that you’ve ordered on Amazon from the warehouse and loading it into a cart to be shipped off. They’re able to have that information displayed to them on a heads-up display like the Vuzix to make them hands-free so that they can be more efficient in their workflow. So it’s been not only on the design side, but on this logistics and backend side in the fashion industry. And it’s really exciting. You know, everything from store design, you just see so many different potentials for improving the supply chain and fashion, which is a huge pain point for a lot of people right now, especially with retail getting faster and faster. The big factor for people who are manufacturing now isn’t so much cost. It’s speed, right? They want to be able to bring things to market quickly. And so different companies like Li & Fung are experimenting with bringing in augmented and virtual reality for speeding up the whole process, the whole process that goes into bringing a T-shirt into your home, so that it’s just more efficient and more direct.

Alan: Yeah. I was just at LiveWorx — which is PTC’s conference — it’s mainly enterprise solutions, so if you’re building a boat or you’re building a ship or you’re building a military installation or something like that. But I saw a lot of overlap with the fact that they’re using heads-up displays for repairs. But the fact that these companies are starting to look at them from a logistics standpoint, how do we just give people better experiences when they’re picking and packing in warehouses, things like that? So I think it’s really exciting. One of the amazing things that I think we’ve only just scratched the surface is is training. I know one of our interviews previous, Jonathan Moss from Sprint, they’ve trained 30,000 people using augmented reality. So they give every store employee the training on an iPhone or a device and let them learn in three dimensions in augmented reality about the services and products that they’re offering. And I think this will be really, really amazing as we move into fashion. If you look at every clerk in every retail store in the world has a smartphone. How can we push better, more immersive type of content for educating them on how to sell better to their customers?

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. And to inform the consumer more. Because one of the big conversations that’s happening in the fashion industry right now is sustainability and transparency. They’re kind of two separate conversations, but underneath the same umbrella of ethical manufacturing. And you can use augmented reality to help bring a product to life, to tell a story about who made it or where it came from or the materials. And I think that digitizing of goods, of actual material goods — exactly as you’re saying — allows you to add this layer of content to a consumable product, that we didn’t have the opportunity to before. So it’s a really exciting time.

Alan: There was a client that called us and they wanted to have 3D models of their shirts. And so we modeled some shirts and some mockups for them. But the idea for them was that they wanted to speed up the process from design to prototype to purchase, because the current system, they design, they prototype in — let’s say China or India, wherever it’s made — they ship the prototype over physically by a plane. Then they take a look at them, they make any changes, and then they send them back. And this process can take six months, to design a T-shirt or design a golf shirt or whatever it is. By using the 3D models and being able to see it real time, I think it’s really a game changer for these people.

Amanda: Yeah, and I believe at Li & Fung, who is experimenting with Magic Leap for exactly that. And that will cut down on their shipping costs. It will cut down on the speed to market, which is very important. As I said, for most retailers, it’s speed. That is the biggest factor for them, not cost. So if you can streamline that process and make it more efficient in the process, you know, you’re cutting down on the amount of trips that a specific garment has to take overseas or a shipping container, then you’re making a more sustainable product in the end. And we’re not too far away from a world in which nothing is manufactured until it’s consumed already. So reversing the whole supply chain model using mixed reality by creating something custom and then only manufacturing it once it’s been purchased, which will solve the overstock problem that many retailers are experiencing.

Alan: Yeah, I think Zara has kind of got the best hold on almost real-time development of products, they use their managers in store to really identify trends immediately and then they make just what they need for those stores.

Amanda: Yeah, yeah. I mean, Zara is doing it. H&M is doing it. I’ve seen different companies that are doing it with scanning technologies, to create a perfect pair of denim for you, so that you’re not getting something off the rack, a standard size 6 or whatever it is. You’re getting something that was actually made for your body, which is a better product for you in the long run because it fits better and customized to your liking. So hopefully the idea for me is that the supply chain and everything about the entire back end of the fashion industry can be made more efficient with new emerging technologies. But the optimist in me talking.

Alan: Well, I think it’s needed. I mean, we’re growing as a society, as humanity. We’re growing rapidly. And we’re reaching this point where everybody knows that the environment is vital to our sustained life on this planet. And yet we still are consuming more and more things. So I think in the near future, these technologies, AI, VR, AR, if we just tweak them slightly for sustainability, transparency, what you were mentioning earlier, I think we can really continue this growth, but in a sustainable and economically responsible way as well.

Amanda: Yeah, and you know what? And a lot of people might not know this, but the fashion industry is actually the second most polluting industry in the entire world, next to oil and gas. So if there’s room for efficiency, there’s room for technological innovation. It’s definitely, definitely there within the fashion industry.

Alan: Wow, I didn’t know that.

Amanda: Yeah.

Alan: That’s crazy. Is there any way to recycle clothes, for example? I’m wearing a sweater, I’m done with it. I mean, obviously, Canada; we have second hand stores and stuff like that. But is there any way to take that cotton in and reuse it?

Amanda: Yes, certainly. I mean, it depends if it is cotton, or if it’s viscose, or spandex; it depends on the material. Certain materials break down and can go back into the environment in a way that’s a lot easier than something like a spandex, which can’t break down. So it really depends. And there’s a lot to be said right now about the emerging trend of recommerce, so selling your clothes and goods secondhand online before it’s broken down and put back into the environment. So the answer is yes and no. I mean, yes. Certainly there are ways of developing recycling systems for fabric scraps, but not everything. It’s not like you can just throw it all into a bin and voila, pops out a new–

Alan: I think that that’s the problem, is that a lot of the fabrics that we wear on a daily basis contain multiple different types of fabric.

Amanda: Yes.

Alan: People don’t realize that when you buy a pair of jeans, and it’s got spandex and cotton and a number of other things in it.

Amanda: Right, yeah, yeah. So this conversation of the circular economy is very prominent right now in the fashion industry, and a lot of brands and retailers are thinking about how they can leverage new technologies to become more efficient.

Alan: Absolutely. So we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the… I don’t know if you saw the LeBron James Nike augmented reality experience, that was in the store and LeBron kind of pops out of this poster and slam dunks. Did you see that?

Amanda: I didn’t see it in person. But I did see an article about it.

Alan: It’s incredible. Went viral, got like a hundred million views.

Amanda: Yeah, it’s very cool the way that you can now add content to fashion in a new way, just like we were talking about before.

Alan: Absolutely. Have you seen the T-shirts, where you can point your phone at the augmented reality T-shirts, and it picks up the trigger and comes to life. I saw that maybe three years ago, and I thought for sure this is gonna be a huge thing, but it never really took off.

Amanda: I’ve seen some examples, like Marks & Spencer has a kid line of dinosaurs and lions and all the different animals, and they come to life and if you have two of them, they kind of interact. So that’s a lot of fun for kids. I’ve definitely seen augmented reality T-shirts that change over time. So one day it’s going to trigger this experience, but the next day it’ll be an entirely new experience.

Alan: Oh, that’s cool. What brands are doing that?

Amanda: So there’s a company called Drawsta out of California — I can’t remember specifically where — but she’s working on a number of augmented reality T-shirts. And yeah, it’s been increasingly an era of experimentation. But I still think that, as you mentioned, we’re just scratching the surface in terms of what’s possible and we’re just seeing what sticks now, over time.

Alan: It’s going to be interesting because I think– we all have phones. And so for the foreseeable future, in the next five years anyway, we’ll be using our phones. But I think there’s going to be a major cultural shift when companies like Apple decide to bring AR glasses to the world and maybe they do it in five years, maybe they do it in two years, we don’t know. But when that comes, you’re going to wear glasses that recognize the world around you and give you really incredible world context experiences. And one thing that we didn’t touch on, which I’d love to get your input on, is the ability to use computer vision to understand products. So, for example, I pull out my phone, I go, “hey, I really love your shirt.” I point my phone and take a picture of it. And an AI algorithm uses computer vision and says, “oh, that shirt is from H&M, you can buy it here.”

Amanda: Yeah.

Alan: And that’s all done real time.

Amanda: Image recognition and computer vision is definitely a huge thing for the fashion industry, especially because clothing is so visual. So I’ve seen lots of experimentation with Google and their new software to be able to not only recognize a shirt but be able to serve you up suggestions for where you can buy one similar. That connected commerce experience, leveraging computer vision and then plugging it into “what else is available on the Internet” is emerging. It’s burgeoning, and it’s very exciting, especially for someone who likes to shop as much as I do. But I didn’t learn this until I interviewed the lady who just wrote a book on augmented reality for fashion — her name is escaping me right now, but I will think of it by the end of this anecdote — but anyway, she works for Google, and she was telling me that the emergence of image recognition and reverse image search, it actually came from a fashion moment.

I don’t know if you remember when J-Lo wore that Versace dress to… I believe it was the Grammys, and it was like a plunging-neck green dress and everyone was searching for it online. That’s when Google actually decided that they were going to create a reverse image look-up, so that you could search things via image. And it’s interesting that a fashion moment kind of created that technology.

And the name of the author, sorry… “augmented reality for fashion book.”.. I’m Googling right now. See, Google?

Alan: I was Googling the same thing. I’m looking for it as well.

Amanda: It’s Leanne Luce! I just remembered it, yeah. So, she’s written a whole book on augmented reality for the fashion industry — or no, I’m sorry; artificial intelligence for the fashion industry, because it speaks about the computer visioning. She is much more educated on that than I am, but if you’re interested in learning more about how that technology is going to change the fashion industry, she has a whole chapter on computer vision.

Alan: Oh, incredible. So it’s called “Artificial Intelligence for Fashion.”

Amanda: Yeah, it’s a great read.

Alan: Amazing. I will put it in the show notes.

Amanda: Yeah.

Alan: Well, is there any last things you want to talk about? I know you have a podcast and you’ve done — what, you said a hundred and something episodes?

Amanda: Yeah. The Electric Runway podcast is on its 115th episode and we interview the makers and shakers that are forefronting fashion, beauty and consumer experiences. The episodes are a one-on-one interview format. They run about 20 minutes each and they’re available for free on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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