Talk about virtual reality (VR) these days is mostly about immersive experiences and the technology as a precursor to a future metaverse. But in fashion, some brands are already using it for a completely different purpose.
As more companies embrace the creation and sampling of 3D products, shoe makers have turned to VR as a design tool that allows them to create their 3D concepts in a 3D space rather than on a flat 2D screen.
“We still sketch on paper, but we also sketch in the 3D world because it means we just have a much more realistic view of proportions, shapes and volume,” said Chris McGrath, Timberland’s vice president of global footwear and design development.
Designers at Nike and Adidas are also experimenting with design in VR. Nike used it while creating the Air Max Scorpion, while Adidas used it to come up with its Futurenatural sneaker.
The technology may not replace flat sketches or 3D computer software any time soon, especially when it comes to clothing, where 2D renderings of garments don’t sacrifice much. But in footwear, designers are exploring the technology’s potential to produce what you might call more spatially accurate concepts.
“I think the reason why [VR] will become more common, as it speeds up the design process in many ways,” said Joey Khamis, a former Reebok designer and co-founder of footwear label MLLN (pronounced melon), which just launched a collection that Khamis said was practically modeled all in VR.
With a 2D sketch, for example, Khamis said you might like looking straight at it, but then when you see a 3D prototype, it might not look the way you expect from other angles or the proportions might be off. In VR, “you can solve those things live,” he said.
Multiple designers can collaborate in a shared VR space, which is useful for companies with teams in different cities or countries. The resulting 3D model also makes it easier to communicate to the factory what the final product should look like and helps avoid or reduce sampling rounds. While VR headsets aren’t cheap, they can still be cheaper than high-end 3D design software.
Khamis said he was introduced to designing in VR through his mentor at Reebok, where he started in 2019 as an apprentice shoe designer. It was used infrequently and is still not widely used in the industry. Timberland has yet to release a product designed in VR and has so far only used it to quickly create 3D concepts. But Khamis knows a number of designers at the major sneaker players who have taken over and are now promoting it.
At Adidas, the team that used it to create the Futurenatural has talked about other benefits of VR.
“We realized we really needed something that we could really work around the anatomy with, a tool that would allow us to do a 360 [degree] perspective,” said Pascal Scholz, an Adidas footwear designer, at a panel last year. “It allowed us to take those perspectives, but also allowed us to really question this classic way of having a midsole, an outsole and an upper and really making everything one system. “
The resulting shoe is not sewn together like a typical sneaker. The upper is molded and fused to the sole.
The panel Scholz participated in took place during a conference hosted by Gravity Sketch, a maker of 3D design and modeling software. Other companies like Adobe also make virtual reality modeling tools. Gravity Sketch has become popular among shoe designers. Adidas and Timberland both use it, as does Khamis, who has partnered with the company. On his Instagram account, he occasionally posts videos of him sketching in VR in real time using the software.
One barrier to more widespread use, Khamis says, is the VR hardware itself, which he says needs to become more portable and less intrusive. (He wears one of Meta’s Quest headsets in his videos.) It blocks a user’s environment, and there have been reports of issues like motion sickness from prolonged use.
Khamis added that he still sketches with pen and marker on paper or sometimes uses an iPad. But he views VR as another option at his disposal, and he’s actually found it more intuitive to pick up than the more common 3D design programs, which he said required a long learning curve.
His prediction is that the benefits of VR will encourage more designers to embrace the technology to shape their ideas. Its use by brands like Timberland, Nike, and Adidas suggests he might be right.