A white vertical wand swoops around Caitlin Zemla for 15 seconds as she stands in a transparent booth in a New Jersey shopping precinct, firing tiny radio waves through her clothes and capturing data as they reflect back off the water in her skin.
The result is 200,000 data points that add up to a record of her body size and shape – and could resolve one of her biggest bugbears as a shopper. "My pants don't ever fit," she says with a sigh at the Woodbridge Center Mall. Why? "My hips."
Ms. Zemla, a medical technician, is one of the 800,000 people to have been scanned in the U.S. in Me-ality branded machines, owned by a Canadian company called Unique Solutions.
It marries their body data with garment measurements from retail partners – including Gap, JC Penney and American Eagle – to recommend the best-fitting clothes in an initiative that could revolutionize shopping.
The chore of slipping into fitting rooms to try on clothes that turn out to be blushingly inappropriate has long been a frustration of bricks-and-mortar shoppers. Several past corporate attempts at body scanning have failed.
But a renewed scramble is now being driven by improved technology and the prospect of creating legions of online clothes buyers who have hitherto been deterred by uncertainty over what will fit.
"We're right on the cusp," says Andy Dunn, chief executive of Bonobos, an online men's clothes store that is waiting for the right scanning technology. "All the ingredients are in the pot. But no one's cooked it up yet into a disruptive force."
Accuracy is still a problem for some. Others have to persuade consumers that their privacy is safe. The measurements are also of limited use if garments aren't made for the most common body shapes and shoppers' preferences for how tightly clothes fit are not known.
The scanning companies aim to make money either by producing and selling clothes directly, or via commissions from retailers and manufacturers.
Unique asks people to make a trip to be scanned by one of its 70 mall machines in the U.S. – which cost up to $100,000 each – or to its one Canadian location, at its offices in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. So does Acustom, which has a machine in New York made by a company called TC2 that scans with white light.
Other companies are working on home scanning, which is cheaper and more convenient, but may be less accurate (although there are no independent studies on the effectiveness of different scanners).
Upcload, based in Berlin, lets people scan themselves with a webcam and image processing technology used to detect defects in computer chips.
Links to Upcload will soon appear on North Face's website and Asaf Moses, its co-founder, says it is raising funding to explore using iPhone cameras to measure feet.
Styku from Los Angeles and the U.K.'s Bodymetrics are exploring at-home uses of the infra-red sensors developed by a company called PrimeSense, which Microsoft popularized in the Kinect motion sensor that it sells with its Xbox console.
Bodymetrics plans to replace an expensive laser scanner that's been at Selfridges in London since 2008 with infra-red technology, and both companies let people use store scanners to create an on-screen avatar that can try on clothes.
Such possibilities, however, can touch on human insecurities. When this correspondent stripped down to his underwear to step into Acustom's light scanner, then emerged re-clothed to view the resulting image, the company declined to show it.
"I've never heard anyone who said 'I looked good' so we don't show it to anyone," said Jamal Motlagh, Acustom's founder.
Acustom's proprietary technology is an algorithm that translates body measurements into design patterns for clothes that it customizes for individual women.
Off-the-rack garments bring several challenges. Different people, for example, have different preferences for snug or baggy fits that a scanner alone cannot deduce.
When I tried on a pair of Gap jeans recommended by the Me-ality scanner they fitted perfectly around the waist but were too loose for my liking around the seat.
Ms. Moses at Upcload recalls one "very skinny" client who always wore extra-large clothes to hide his body. "Then we realized our job is not to tell you what size to buy, but to show you how it will fit you."
Getting the desired fit is all the more difficult because many manufacturers still make clothes for unrealistic body shapes, defined for women by bust-to-waist and waist-to-hip measurements.
Ed Gribbin, president of size consultancy Alvanon, says that in the past decade many brands have switched their core body shape from Marilyn Monroe's classic hourglass to a more common "modified hourglass."
But that still leaves unserved those who have four other body shapes: rectangle, oval, triangle and inverted triangle. And people's bodies also change.
Back at the shops in New Jersey, Ms. Zemla picks up the scanner's print-out of personalized clothes recommendations and heads off ready to give it a go.
"At first I was unsure about everything, about whether it could get my measurements," she says. "But I think it's pretty good if it fits and it's quick and easy."