Fashion finder apps that link photos of clothes to stores selling them, or similar items, take off
Visual-recognition programs take photo of piece of clothing and link user to store selling it or something similar in a preset price range
When British model Cara Delevingne told Vogue one of her favourite apps was Asap54 - which uses visual-recognition technology to identify clothes - it was a PR shot in the arm for the new player in an area where competition to become the definitive technology is rife.
Snap Fashion in the UK, Style-Eyes from Ireland and Slyce in Canada are just a few of the companies that are using elaborate software to allow shoppers to take a picture of clothing on their smartphone and then be linked to a retailer where they can buy that piece or something similar.
Image-recognition software, where algorithms are used to identify and match one image with another, has been used in security and marketing for a number of years. But the move into fashion is seen as one of the first steps in the widespread commercialisation of the technology.
Jenny Griffiths started the groundwork for what would become Snap Fashion at the University of Bristol in southwest England.
Launched during London fashion week in September 2012, it notched up 250,000 users in its first year.
When a picture is taken of a shoe or a piece of clothing, the software analyses it by looking at the colour, pattern and shape, and tries to find a match on an existing database of products from 170 sellers. They range from high street retailers to luxury London department store Harrods. Another app called ColourPop matches products by colour.
"I think it is really fascinating but also someone's job to push technology into consumer spaces because we are wasting the tools [smartphones] we are carrying around every day," said Griffiths.
Snap Fashion has created an app for London's Westfield shopping centres that lets shoppers upload a picture and then receive suggestions from the different ranges in stock.
Mark Hughes, who has worked in image recognition for 10 years, is a co-founder of Dublin-based Style-Eyes, which has attracted 65,000 users since it launched last year. Users take a picture of what they want, draw an outline around it and the image is matched against a database of 1.5 million pieces of clothing, shoes and handbags. Then they receive suggestions of where they can buy something similar.
"If someone matches a very expensive dress, the chances are they will not be able to afford it, but what we intend to do is bring back similar ones that might be in the price range so you can filter all the results with what your intended range is," Hughes said.
Both firms make commission when items are bought via their sites - Snap Fashion makes 5 per cent to 15 per cent and Style-Eyes 5 per cent to 12 per cent. Style-Eyes says it receives up to 15 pence (HK$1.95) each time a user clicks through to a retailer. Both say just more than one third of searches result in users going to a retailer's website.
Although there are numerous players in the field, one industry commentator from a fashion retailer said no single company had managed to reach the tipping point that would make it the standard technology for consumers and brands to use. Glitches can happen when the various programs cannot recognise clothing because of a lack of distinguishing features. No one yet claims a 100 per cent success rate.
"Fashion, from a technical perspective, is very difficult for image recognition mainly because clothes change because of what way someone is sitting or what direction you are taking" the picture, Hughes said.