Fashionista recently attended a FashTech event called “The Future of Retail: Shaping Shopping with Visual Search” and was introduced to Cortexica, a visual search company based in San Francisco and London, which is making it its aim to revolutionise the way in which we shop. Powered by the belief that text search is slowly becoming redundant and recognising the prevalence of Instagram and Pinterest, Cortexica is pushing the development of visual search.

Following 14 years of research with Imperial College London, Cortexica has created an algorithm that mimics the way in which the human eye sees objects. Having used the technology with “eBay Motors”, eBay suggested using it to enhance search results for fashion items. This was based on eBay’s frustration that it took eight clicks before a customer purchased an item.

With this brief in mind Cortexica further developed its technology, the results of which are “findSimilar Fashion” and “findSimilar Shoes”. Users can take photos of clothes or shoes which they like and receive similar matches from a database of retailers’ products. They can also take photos of colours, textures or patterns which they like, and the search engine will bring up a list of clothes or shoes which have these traits. The results are ranked in order of similarity to the photo. This also means that customers are presented with items that they might not ordinarily have considered.

Alex Semenzato of Cortexica explained that this is not limited to taking photos of products in magazines, but can also be applied to taking photos of items worn in real time by individuals. This solves the problem of seeing someone wearing an item of clothing which you like and attempting to search for it online afterwards using text search. On a practical level, “Street Style” photos would have to be taken at arm’s length and in decent light for the results to work. However such “Street Style” photos, inevitably lead to issues of data protection. Semenzato stated that Cortexica does not hold onto or own the photos taken by individuals and that any issues and responsibilities surrounding data protection remain with retailers. Clearly such photos, if owned and kept by retailers, would need to be anonymised and any future use would need to be made clear.

Retailers also benefit from this technology as it allows them to create profiles of various demographics and know what the most searched for item is at a given time, allowing them to adjust their inventories accordingly.

The technology is currently being trialled by Zalando and Macys, and Semenzato believes that we are two or three years away from a streamlined Street Style image search engine. Semenzato believes that this technology is a step forward in bringing “techies and fashionistas together that’s not like a school disco.”

By: Emily Dorotheou
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