Talkback: Robot Overkill edition

Since I’ve instated this section (or whatsammabobbit) specifically for the purpose of directly responding to stuff, I’ve got this one for you, Wired: No, that’s not online shopping’s thorniest problem, and no, this wouldn’t solve it if it was.

What am I talking about? Well, this article, in which you can read about how a robot torso is going to be able to provide to clothing webshoppers a precise image of how a garment looks on them, as opposed to a generic image of said garment, or even an enhanced but misleading one.

The robot torso for the job looks quite awesome, to be sure – but is it really the magic bullet for the fashion webshopper segment? Let’s investigate…


To say you have a solution to a problem you have to define the problem – and already this project is falling apart. Now, it seems to want to address the difference in the experience of “shop-shopping”, where you pick stuff off the racks and then try it on in front of a mirror before buying it, and that of webshopping for clothes, in which you, well, don’t do that, but instead click “Buy” on the basis of pictures of varying qualities.

But webshopping is fundamentally different from shop-shopping so maybe getting the twain to resemble isn’t a priority, or shouldn’t be – from the perspective of the shopper, who should absolutely be the protagonist here let’s remember, they’re just different things, with different benefits and drawbacks to each experience.

That would be things like the tactile pleasure and, hopefully, inspiring surroundings and good customer service in a nice shop, that’s great, but on the downside you have to decide in a few minutes, and if they don’t have the thing you’re looking for, tough sh… luck for you.

– or the convenience, colossal selection, and loose time constraints of webshopping (you can take as long as you want looking at something before buying, and you have a mandatory try-and-return period of weeks in most countries), at the cost of not getting a feel for quality and, well, feel until the box arrives, and having to ship unwanted items back, possibly at your own expense.

I didn’t say anything about fit because I wanted to address that specifically in relation to the torso-bot, which I will get to as soon as I point out that the above raises serious question about what is, in fact, online shopping’s thorniest problem – it could still be fit but, well, here we go:

The robot doesn’t have any arms, but it does have a number of massive fissures in its “skin”. Do you look like that? No? Well, then the shirt won’t look on you like it does on the robot, not exactly – and if it’s only an approximation the problem (if it is the problem) still isn’t actually solved. And this only scratches the surface of fit, because when you try on clothes, do you stand absolutely still and stare at yourself? No, you don’t – you spin and dart, raise and wave your arms, twist, bend and generally move about to see what the garment looks like on you being you. The torso-bot won’t do any of those things, and even if it did it would still leave a great deal to your imagination, just like a regular, bot-less generic shot of it would.

Also, the bot is only good for trying on upper-body garments with short sleeves. Also-also, even though it’s capable of closely mimicking any body shape, as a lay person you are in no way going to be able to convey that much information about your body – all you can provide is a few key measurements, which says as much about your actual shape as your shoe size does about your walking speed. And his thing isn’t going to be cheap – as a webshop owner you should really ask yourself if that extremely narrow field of things it does do is worth it to your customers.


“- hello, I’m here to empty the ash tray [bleep-blop].”

Basically the torso-bot represents a serious problem, not a solution – the problem being that almost every time someone addresses the notion that a wicked problem can be solved with a clever piece of technology, the problem is viewed exclusively from the perspective of purveyor, when almost every time the focus should have been on the recipient.

If you’re going to solve a problem you think your customers or users have, you bloody well have to understand the situation they’re in – you seriously, literally have to be empathic to their plight.

Or you’re just going to end up with an expensive robot, two thumbs and a backside, and a user base who still is not satisfied.

What was that? My suggestion for thorniest problem? Well, off the top of my head, and very generally speaking, I’d say shipping – most of the people I’ve interviewed about this have pegged their trepidation towards webshopping on the level of perceived convenience, or rather, lack thereof, in having a package sent to you and, especially, on the perceived lack of convenience (plus, to a lesser extent, the cost) of return shipping. As a webshop, if you address those, you’re doing a whole lot better than the guy who just spent thousands of dollars on a leathery robot.