Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Cambridge
Unit of AssessmentGeneral Engineering
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Research at the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering (DoEng)
since 1997 created methods for reconstructing a three-dimensional (3D)
model of an object from a single two-dimensional photograph. Metail, a
company founded in 2008, sponsored further research at the DoEng and
commercialised the results in an online fashion retailing application.
Metail enables customers to select an item of clothing and see how they
would look wearing it from a variety of angles, having entered just one
photograph of themselves and a few basic body measurements. Metail
attracted over GBP3.5M investment. Its application is used by Shop Direct,
Tesco, Warehouse, Zalando and Dafiti. Sales data shows that the Metail
application increases the propensity of customers to buy and reduces the
proportion of goods returned.
Professor Roberto Cipolla (appointed as a Lecturer in the DoEng in 1992
and promoted to Professor in 2000) has led research in the DoEng on
computer vision with the aim of reconstructing 3D models of objects from
Initially, Cipolla simplified the research aim in two ways: (1) choosing
buildings as the objects, because they are generally rectilinear and their
parallel edges determine vanishing points; (2) working with the outline of
objects in multiple photographs to reduce the ambiguity created by using
just one photograph.
Grants from the EPSRC and Office Workstation Limited (subsequently
Panasonic) supported research from 1996 to 2002. By studying the geometry
of perspective and vanishing points to recover camera pose, Cipolla's team
devised efficient algorithms and methods to enable reconstruction of
architectural scenes (Ref 1). Extension to multiple viewpoints enabled the
team to produce Photobuilder in 1999, which was a PC-based application
that could generate 3D models of buildings in standard Virtual Reality
Modelling Language (VRML) from images of an architectural scene (Ref 2).
Assumptions about buildings generally having parallel sides and orthogonal
walls reduced ambiguity. Triangulation of features and texture mapping was
used to create the detailed and fully rendered 3D VRML models.
Cipolla's next step was to attempt to model more complex 3D objects in
the Digital Pygmalion Project that was funded by Toyota from 2003 to 2006.
Cipolla and his team discovered how to identify automatically key features
on an arbitrary object and its precise silhouettes from a series of
uncalibrated photographs. They used this information to determine the
precise viewpoint in every photograph. The accurate viewpoint information
combined with the silhouettes combined with detailed texture information
enabled generation of an accurate 3D mesh even when the object was very
complex and lacked clear surface features. The final overlay of texture on
the 3D mesh completed reconstruction of the object (Ref 3).
Cipolla then led the research to model complex 3D objects once more, but
with just a single uncalibrated image rather than many and one broad class
of complex object, the human body, rather than any object. This research
ran from 2008 and 2011 commissioned and supported by Metail. The research
addressed three challenges:
- Cipolla and the team needed to obtain body shape measurements from a
single photograph of the customer, but knew that the photograph required
some simple reference geometry; otherwise there would be too many
variables. They asked customers to take photographs of themselves
standing in a doorway, which provided a simple rectilinear reference.
This gave just enough information for their system to calibrate the
camera, derive the viewpoint and calculate measurements of the
customer's shape. This research built on the approach created for
- It is impossible to compute accurately the 3D shape of a human body
from measurements taken from one photograph without information that
categorises the range of likely shapes; there is too much ambiguity.
Cipolla and his team devised a method for defining any human body shape
with a vector of morphing parameters using an existing database of 2000
3D models of real human bodies as training data.
- The team then created a method to find the most likely vector of
morphing parameters given a set of measurements by learning a Gaussian
Process Latent Variable Model. Adding customer- input body measurements,
such as height and weight, to those that could be computed from the
photograph reduced ambiguity. The morphing parameters were then used to
generate the most likely 3D shape of the customer.
The work was published in a series of papers (Refs 4, 5 and 6).
References to the research
1. R. Cipolla, T. Drummond and D. P. Robertson: "Camera Calibration from
Vanishing Points in Images of Architectural Scenes". In Proc. British
Machine Vision Conference, Nottingham, UK (September), Vol 2, pp.382-391,
DOI: 10.5244/C.13.38, 1999.
2. *D. P. Robertson, R. Cipolla: "Building Architectural Models from Many
Views Using Map Constraints". ECCV 2002, LNCS 2351, pp.155-169, DOI:
3. *C. Hernández, G Vogiatzis and R. Cipolla: "Multiview Photometric
Stereo". IEEE Trans. Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence (PAMI), Vol
30 (3), pp.548-554, DOI: 10.1109/TPAMI.2007.70820, March 2008.
4. Y. Chen and R. Cipolla: "Learning Shape Priors for Single View
Reconstruction". In Proc. IEEE Int. Workshop on 3D Imaging and Modelling,
Kyoto, Japan, October 2009, Gen paper, DOI: 10.1109/ICCVW.2009.5457443,
5. *Y. Chen and R. Cipolla: "Single and Sparse View 3D Reconstruction by
Learning Shape Priors". Computer Vision and Image Understanding, Vol 115
(5), pp.586-602, DOI: 10.1016/j.cviu.2010.10.015, 2011.
6. Y. Chen, D. Robertson and R. Cipolla: "A Practical System for
Modelling Body Shapes from Single View Measurements". In Proc. British
Machine Vision Conference, Dundee (September), pp. 82.1-82.11, DOI:
*Research outputs that best represent the quality of the research
Details of the impact
Metail was formed in 2008 with the aim of providing online fashion
retailers with technology that would enable their customers to see on
screen how they would look in new clothes before purchase, so that:
- customers would have more confidence when making an online purchase
- retailers would see increased sales because of this confidence
- retailers would receive fewer returned goods from dissatisfied
Metail was founded by Tom Adeyoola (Ref 7) and Duncan Robertson (Ref 8).
Adeyoola was a University of Cambridge graduate. Robertson was a
postdoctoral researcher from Cipolla's team, who had partnered with
Cipolla to commercialise research findings through their firm Redimension
(founded in 2000). Cipolla had introduced Robertson to Adeyoola following
a request for computer vision consulting services on an earlier project.
Metail has 25 employees (July 2013) including Robertson, who became
Metail's Chief Scientific Officer, and another member of Cipolla's
Metail raised more than GBP3.5M in equity funding in six funding rounds,
all from private individuals. Metail funded fundamental research at the
DoEng with Cipolla's team to answer the technical challenge at the core of
its business proposition: how to generate an accurate 3D model of a
customer from a single photograph and a few simple measurements such as
height and weight. This research is described in section 2. All
intellectual property arising from this research was assigned to Metail,
which filed patent applications.
The first version of the Metail application was launched in 2011 via
Facebook. Metail has completed live trials, in which real customers make
real purchases, with five retail businesses in the UK, Europe and South
America. Three of these businesses have signed full contracts and
discussions are underway with the other two. By the end of July 2013, over
300,000 people have created 3D body models, called MeModels, using Metail.
Details of the use of Metail by five retail businesses are subject to
strict confidentiality, but the following information has been released:
Tesco agreed to trial Metail on its Facebook online retailing
page in 2012. Emily Shamma, Director of Tesco Clothing Online, said: "We
know the main reason people get nervous about buying clothes online is
simply because they cannot try them on first. Although there has been
talk about 'virtual fitting rooms' before, until now the technology
has not been able to combine styling, accurate fit and size based on
peoples' specific measurements. If our customers tell us they like
this, we could see real business benefits, not only with more people
opting to shop online for clothing, but also helping to reduce
returns, commonly caused by people ordering the wrong size" (Ref
9). Tesco ran online tests with control and variant samples to
measure the effect of Metail technology on the interest-to-sale
conversion rate and the product return rate. The benefits of Metail were
clear. In 2012, CEO and Senior Executives at Tesco gave it Tesco's Best
Online Innovation Award (Ref 7). Tesco moved to contract with Metail and
the strapline on Tesco's Virtual Fitting Room Facebook page became: "We're
delighted to let you know that the F&F Virtual Fitting Room has
been so successful on Facebook that we have made it part of our main
website!" (Ref 10).
Warehouse signed a long-term deal with Metail in January 2012
and has stated, "We're hearing feedback from customers who are
saying, 'I love this' and 'This is really exciting.' It's been really
positive" (Ref 11).
Shop Direct publicly endorsed Metail at the Internet Retail
Expo in Birmingham in 2013, when Paul Hornby, Head of eCommerce for Shop
Direct, described the use of Metail in an experiment on the
www.very.co.uk website at the end of 2012. The experiment was to measure
the effect of Metail on sales of 150 product lines. Shop Direct's main
objective was to reduce product return rates, but was pleased to see
that it also increased sales conversion rates by 0.4%. Paul Hornby
stated, "It also reduced returns by half a percent. Now, half a
percent doesn't sound massive in comparison to some of the numbers
that you will hear, but we sell thousands and thousands and thousands
of items every single day and if I can reduce returns on all of them
by half a percent, I'm happy with that, so this, for us, was a big big
deal" (Ref 12). Shop Direct has contracted with Metail (Ref 7).
Zalando, a Germany-based international retailer, has invested
in testing Metail's virtual dressing room on its live site for an
estimated 200 product lines from its own brands with the aim of reducing
product returns (Ref 13).
Dafiti, South America's fastest growing online fashion
retailer, is trialling Metail (2013) with a view to adopting the
technology (Ref 7).
In addition, the television broadcaster ITV has partnered with Metail to
support the fashion segment, "Takeover the makeover", in its live
programme, "This Morning", which is broadcast every weekday. The Metail
system has featured on the programme since December 2012. A guest in the
studio uses Metail to view clothing options and the audience can
participate interactively at home by offering advice. The show has
generated over 20,000 user outfit submissions per show during the live
hour and more than 10,000 `forwards' to the retailer's webpage per show
(Ref 7 and 14).
Sources to corroborate the impact
The following people have given their permission to be named in the case
study and may be contacted by reviewers to corroborate information about
- Tom Adeyoola, Chief Executive Officer, Metail (business model,
investment, sales) (permission given to name)
- Duncan Robertson, Chief Scientific Officer, Metail (technology
employed by the business) (permission given to name)
The following sources also corroborate the account:
- "Tesco launches virtual 3D fitting room", Ed Owen, Marketing, 28
- Tesco F&F Virtual Fitting Room page on Facebook (2013),
- "3-D Tech Lets Online Shoppers 'Try on' Clothes", Gwen Moran,
Entrepreneur, 12 May 2013, www.entrepren
eur.com/article/226091#ixzz2bTCfmKpP (originally published in the
print edition as "A Perfect E-fit" in April 2013).
- "Building trust", a presentation by Paul Hornby, Head of eCommerce,
Shop Direct Group, given on 26 March 2013 at the Internet Retailing Expo
in Birmingham, 26-27 March 2013, www.internetretailingexpo.com/the-eseller-theatre-conferences/
- "Virtuelle Umkleidekabinen: Zalando testet Metail", CX-Commerce, 11
January 2013, http://cx-
- "Brilliant! Get me dressed, Metail" Teresa Novellino, Upstart Business
Journal, 13 December 2012, http://upstart.bizjournals.com/companies/rebel-brands/2012/12/13/fashion-fitting-startup-