Body Labs: Visualizing Your Body in 3D

Body comparisonAt the recent QS15 conference, a video of a 3D human body model kicking, punching and bending caught my eye.  It was playing on a monitor at the Body Labs booth, so I stopped to learn more about it and talk to developer Paul Melnikow.  Body Labs is a company based in New York City that develops software that you can use to generate custom scans of yourself using a single Kinect scanner.  They have built an extensive database of scans of real human bodies so if you don’t have your own scanner to work with, you can create an account on their’ Body Hub website to enter your measurements and create a model.

(Photo credit:  Body Labs)

The company’s blog shares a few details about three alpha testers, all custom clothing designers who are using the Body Labs’ developer kit to provide customers with web-based tools that will help them purchase clothes that better fit their unique shapes.  This makes the customer happy and reduces returns for the company.  It is also public knowledge that they have a 2 year, nearly $1 million contract with the US Army to scan thousands of male and female soldiers to provide data that will guide army clothing designers to create better-fitting clothing and body armor across a range of body sizes and builds.

I recently watched a QS meetup presentation video about Biometrics, a body-scanning booth based on Kinect scanners that has been adopted by Bloomingdale’s and other high end department stores to help women them find the perfect pair of jeans.  So far it is only available in select locations and seems rather specialized to the jeans application, from what I can see.  But now that external scanners that fit to iPads for capturing 3D video can be had for a couple hundred dollars, we’re probably not too far off from a time where they are standard in every iPhone or iPad and more web sites support upload of measurements or even 3D scans to help when shopping.  I recently ordered a set of tank tops in various colors in two different sizes online and had to go to a store to return the half that didn’t fit, so I certainly welcome a future in which I can use my data to make better decisions about sizing.

While watching the Body Labs video, naturally my thoughts turned to how useful custom 3D models could be for weight loss applications.  I have seen at least one searchable web site where people upload pictures of themselves by height, weight and body fat percentage.  Although this approach is flawed because variation in bone structure, muscle size and shape and fat receptor distribution can greatly impact how individuals actually look at a specified weight and body fat, at least such sites provide some visualization of what target measurements look like on a real body.

My favorite workout programs, designed by John Barban, are based on the premise of convergence towards a set of ideal measurements that are gender-specific and scale to height. But clearly variations in body structure like leg and torso length impact how different people will look and how much they will weigh at those ideal measurements.  I have noticed that women usually miss the significance of structural factors when visualizing how they might look at their goal measurements.  Matching circumference measurements with the structural and muscular dimensions of one’s own custom body model could be very helpful in getting a more realistic picture of how one might look while losing (or gaining) weight.

While we were talking, Paul mentioned that other areas of interest might be understanding and predicting body shape changes that could happen during pregnancy.  Obviously the structural changes during pregnancy are very different than those that occur during non-pregnancy weight gain.  Having gone through a 45 lb pregnancy weight gain myself four years ago, I wish I had kept better measurement records of my body at the time!

Interestingly, about three months ago, Body Labs hosted a hackathon at NYU (where the company originated) and a few of the projects proposed by students were health and fitness related.  One of the videos even showed an app using a custom body scan to find close matches between the user’s body and other users’ body shapes.  The Fast Company article about Body Labs even shows an animated gif of a body heat map indicating changes between two body scans, which would be amazingly helpful and motivating during a weight loss effort.  I played around using various historical measurements and would have loved to have access to that kind of heatmap view!  (By the way, if you decide to do this yourself, I found that their site works best in Chrome which seems to have the best sliders.)


In my mind, 3D body models become even more interesting when paired with information like metabolic rate and body fat percentage of various body areas, which are getting much easier to measure with the rise of less expensive tools.  The Breezing device for metabolic rate estimation costs about $350 and takes 2 minutes per measurement to estimate your metabolic rate.  Validation studies have shown the device’s results compare very closely with measurements of metabolic rate done with a $25k metabolic cart, which may take as long as 30-60 minutes to complete.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I also had a chance to try out the Skulpt Aim body fat analyzer at QS15, which costs $200 and provide  area-specific body fat and muscle quality measurements that the company says compare favorably to data produced from DEXA scans.  DEXAs are commonly used for bone density applications and it’s harder to find locations that offer DEXA scans for body fat percentage.  The equipment used is an expensive scanning table and so they can sometimes be found in academic sports science departments, and are occasionally open to the public through community screening programs.  For example, the closest location where I could get a DEXA done for body fat composition is in Wilmington, NC, and costs $50.  If you near the beach and have interest in a DEXA, you can contact Dr. Wayland Tseh at UNC Wilmington for an appointment!

The body model videos I saw on the Body Labs website seemed to be created using fully clothed models where I would not expect to be able to see much muscle definition, but if scans were taken in workout clothing so that muscle contours could be captured, it would be fascinating to be able to relate visual change to weight, body fat and potentially metabolic changes and cluster individuals into groups with similar patterns.  I have seem quite a few examples of women with long legs and relatively short torsos who tend to have lower metabolic rates then women with relatively short legs and long torsos. This makes sense since organs contained within the torso are the primary calorie burning machine and people with larger torsos likely tend to have larger organs.  However, having some means for predicting these parameters from body shape and muscularity could be extremely valuable!

If you want to learn more about Body Labs, this article appeared in Fast Company last year and mentions how Body Labs plans to create software to work with various 3D camera technologies coming to computers and mobile devices.  You can see an example video on the Body Labs website here, and Paul talks in detail about the Body Labs technology in this YouTube video.  Also, an article about the project with the US Army appeared in Forbes.


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