The New Normal

Zalando The New Normal
The New Normal

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the hottest topics dominating the news right now. From self-driving cars to Google’s AlphaGo, AI is everywhere. As its relevance and importance grows, so too does the need for companies like Zalando to be at the cutting edge of emerging research and trends. We sat down with two of our leading researchers to talk about AI’s transition from science fiction to reality.

Many companies are talking about AI, but what does it actually mean?

Dr. Reiner Kraft, VP Engineering of Search and Personalization: Artificial intelligence is a research field that is comprised of many areas, one primary area of interest being machine learning. Deep learning is also part of it. What we, at Zalando, want to do with AI is to allow computers to learn from data, so that they can come up with ways to create smarter applications – more evolved applications – with a human touch.

Dr. Roland Vollgraf, Research Lead: The main challenge with AI is that we aren't teaching machines how to do certain things, they're actually learning from data. The ultimate goal of AI would be the existence of a machine that is indistinguishable from a human being.

How important is AI's role in the world of fashion?

Reiner: There are a lot of opportunities here. For instance, you could take a picture with your smartphone of someone walking down the street, and a smart application can deduce what items they're wearing, and where to order them online. It could even match these items to your own style profile: Whether or not they're your taste, if each item is suited to you, or whether you should consider different styles. It could ultimately give you taste suggestions, which is a really cool way to apply AI to fashion.

Where do you think AI will be in the next 3-5 years? What is Zalando doing to keep up with the pace?

Reiner: I see a few technical trends on the rise. Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) is currently booming (just look at Pokémon Go!), with more devices being produced that give us the opportunity to interact in an immersive way. The application of this technology can span several industries, particularly fashion. You could use a VR headset to gain access to a virtual wardrobe: picking items out, trying them on, all while being completely immersed.
This technology requires what we touched on before regarding smart applications and your sense of style. It might sound like science fiction, but we're getting closer to practical applications of these ideas, and to do this, there needs to be a strong research focus, with the right people behind the work. For this purpose, we've established Zalando Research, where we will look at the forward thinking required of these use-cases and forge a path in realizing this technology.

What is the ultimate goal of Zalando Research?

Reiner: At Zalando, we want to help our customers reimagine fashion in a different light. We want to make it much easier for them to access fashion and the items that they like, and to guide them in terms of styling. Shopping is a very personal process, i.e. in brick-and-mortar stores customers can use the fashion knowledge of shop assistants to find out what they need and want. This is one of our inspirations: How can we combine the sought-after qualities of the online shopping experience with these personal touches? We can use AI to revolutionize this process, so that, years from now, you'll be buying fashion in a completely different way.

Roland: We are working on making it possible for machines to understand what fashion is, what the intrinsic concept of fashion or a certain style is. Once this happens, we can allow computers to be our fashion advisors, much like shop assistants in a brick-and-mortar store.