Wouldn't it be nice to have your own personal shopper? Heinz College students took the idea one step further — creating technology that has the clothes you try on offering you suggestions about what would go well with them.
While studying as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, Vincent Sethiwan would dream of ideas like this for technology-based inventions. He often exchanged these ideas with his friend Kevin Chia, an exchange student from Singapore Management University, which offers a fast-track masters program in partnership with Heinz College's School of Information Systems and Management.
It was this partnership that led to the idea of putting radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in clothes found in retail stores — allowing customers to match clothes, such as shirts and pants, ties and shirts, and skirts and blouses.
RFID tags are a technology similar to bar coding, but instead of visual scanning, a tag reader can detect a tag within a given proximity. The range of proximity with RFID is much greater, and the information associated with the RFID tag is much richer than that of bar codes.
The students imagined that a tag reader would detect the clothes they had in the fitting room, suggesting other wardrobe combinations and benefitting the buyer and the retailer.
"The scope was way too big for our junior year project," explained Sethiwan. "But last year I spoke to my (Heinz College) entrepreneurship professor, Babs Carryer, and she introduced us to the Keith Block Entrepreneurship Fund."
The fund supports proposals for entrepreneurial information systems projects developed by Heinz College graduate students. The winners of the competition receive $3,000 plus mentorship and support from faculty, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. The project is designed to help students get from idea to reality.
After learning about the funding available through the competition, the team reworked their idea into a practical business application. "We had to show people that this idea will increase retail sales and generate profits," explains Jonathan Ma, the third member to join the team.
The team's business concept, "Smart.Mirror," envisions placing RFID sensors next to mirrors at clothing retailers. The sensors recognize clothing items that the shoppers are trying on in front of the mirror and suggest accessories and related clothing options using a touch screen adjacent to the mirror.
"It's similar to amazon.com suggestions. It's a real-time personal shopper. We're bringing that type of feature to a brick and mortar store," said Sethiwan.
Sethiwan, Chia and Ma wrote up a business proposal and presented their idea to the fund organizers. The competition was fierce, but the team's creative idea was rewarded and the trio is now working on bringing their concept to reality.