Little Tiny Fingers

One of our new avatar apparel designers, Misteria Loon, sent me a gorgeous gown she just finished designing and developing.  I enjoyed wearing it to Calli’s induction into the Museum of SL Photography  for a couple of reasons.  Not only was it very lovely and new, but I also know that the glamorous look was humanely achieved.   

As a designer and as the CEO of a company dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the apparel industry, I am always deeply aware of the various inputs that the real life apparel industry requires which avatar apparel does not.  It’s a topic on my mind at this time of year in particular, when retailers are starting to display gorgeous beaded and embroidered sweaters and dresses just in time for the winter holidays. 

The holiday season is upon us with the shimmer of Christmas tree lights and the flicker of candlelight from menorrahs.  We love to wear special clothing at our most festive season of the year, because they connect us strongly to some of our deepest emotions about family and friends.  Such garments make us feel good – glamorous, sexy, or simply special.   All of which is wonderful, except for one thing…how these garments are manufactured.

Being immersed in the apparel industry, I quite often forget that most people outside of the apparel industry do not know how their clothing actually gets made.  They think that machines do it, like cars or airplanes get built.  Big robots move things around while some well-paid robot operator pushes buttons to get their glittery beaded sweater made.   That would be great, if only it were true.

Guess what?  That’s not how it works.

People make your clothes.  Not robots.  Not machines.  People.  I say this a lot in my talks, but it’s hard to make it sink in that people and their fingers make your clothing. These people may use machines but those machines are still primitive relative to the welding equipment that Detroit or Japan provides to make cars.  Ultimately, it’s one person bent over one machine, sewing piece after piece after piece.  And those glittery, wonderful sweaters and dresses that look so pretty when you wear them? Each and every one of those beads or sequins are hand-sewn, using age-old methods of single needle and thread or tambour embroidery.  One person, one pair of hands, 1 needle with thread, stitching each bead, one at a time.

What’s more, the actual hands doing the sewing, one stitch at a time, too often belong to people who in any developed country would still be in school. Not college, not middle school – grade school.  The people sewing, stitch by stitch by stitch, the beads and sequins onto your sweater that you may buy this year for $49.99 is often a child.  Not only is your sweater likely made by a young child, but it is often likely that that child is underfed and malnourished.  That child worked very long hours – 12 to 14 or more – with very few breaks of any sort.  The working conditions themselves are worse than anything people in developing countries would provide to their pets.   And quite often, if these children do not make their stitching quotas, they are brutally beaten with rubber hoses — because rubber hoses do not leave marks that can be seen by human rights auditors. 

Please keep that in mind – small weary fingers stabbing a needle frantically through cloth, trying desperately to complete her quota for the day so she doesn’t get beaten and (hopefully) will get fed – so you can look good at your holiday party.

In the apparel industry, designers love beads and sequins.  We love to show them on our garments.  When we design for runway, we send our garments out to reasonably well-paid sample makers, who also make up the garments, by hand, each stitch placed one at a time.  But the working conditions of the sample maker, who is usually an educated adult often in a developed part of the world, is very different from those of the child working in an overseas factory to make the sweater you will buy for $49.99.  When we as designers create a design for the mass market that features beads or sequins, we know that it will take lots of little tiny fingers to apply those beads and sequins. 

One of my colleagues coined the phrase ‘little tiny fingers’. As we were reviewing keep samples one day, she said to me that she loves the look of beads, but she won’t use beads or sequins on her designs because she can’t bear to think about the children who (probably) will ultimately make them. Not all designers will make that choice.  If we, as designers, are instructed by our employers to design beaded things, then we do it or lose our job.  It is as simple as that. We have a choice: design or get fired.  Most of us choose to design or we find a job where we aren’t asked to design those sorts of garments.  But whether or not we choose to keep our job and design the beaded garment, or to move to another job, that garment will ultimately be designed and the design sent to these overseas factories.  Little tiny aching fingers which don’t have a choice will manufacture the garments, which will then be sent to the retail store. 

You as a consumer also have a choice.  I am not saying you have to choose to give up your glitter and glamour.  You can always get your fantasy fashion kicks in Second Life for a tiny fraction of the cost of one of these real life garments, and you can rest assured that the designer of your garment is an adult being reasonably well compensated for the work. In the atomic world, your choices become more interesting and reflective of your own inner ethics landscape.  For instance, you can choose to buy the beaded sweater from a manufacturer that uses labor that contributes to human rights abuses.   But not all of these garments are manufactured using child labor, so you can also choose to educate yourself about which companies adhere to high labor standards.   You can buy a more expensive garment that is made in a factory where humane practices are followed.  You can choose to buy garments that use a less labor intensive technique such as a metallic yarn used in the knit, or a hot-transfer rhinestone pattern applied to the garment.  Or you can even buy a garment that is produced domestically, which will cost more, because the laborer producing it is paid a living wage.    

If you can afford one of these garments at all, perhaps it’s time for you to pay it forward and buy the sweater or dress sold by a company that gurantees that it does not use factories that support human rights abuses.  If you buy a sweater made using the less-labor intensive techniques, you may find it’s not as glamorous as the hand-beaded sweater.  But ask yourself: how beautiful will you feel in a garment manufactured in such an ugly way?

You do have a choice, which those little tiny fingers do not.  I hope you will make the humane choice.

IBM Signs Services Agreement with Fashion Research Institute

New York, October 9, 2008  –  IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced it has signed a multi-million IBM Global Business Services agreement with the Fashion Research Institute (FRI)  to implement a first of a kind Virtual World Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Enterprise System. 

Fashion Research Institute, headquartered in New York, NY conducts research into technology-based initiatives and develops emerging technologies to overhaul traditional fashion practices and methodologies. FRI’s mission is to reduce the carbon footprint and change the environmental impact of the industry in ways that are sustainable, replicable, respectful of the practitioners, and meaningful for all stakeholders.  FRI maintains Shengri-La, a five-island complex in Second Life, and an OpenSim complex.   

“We’re proud to pioneer the first big business solution that leverages the OpenSim virtual world platform to address economies of scale.” said Shenlei Winkler, FRI. “The Fashion Research Institute understands how to design real world consumer goods using a virtual world environment, and IBM understands the scaling challenges of global enterprise. Taking on both simultaneously is a winning move.”


This virtual world enterprise solution, expressly created as a product design environment, will offer a fundamentally new work flow addressing critical issues facing the design industry, such as ensuring manufacturability of designs and decreasing substantial sample costs by two-thirds.   Users of this solution will ultimately be able to enter a virtual world, receive training on the systems, and take a design from concept to prototype – with every step short of actual manufacturing being done virtually.  


This first-of-a-kind system will allow fashion and consumer packaging designers to access and use 3-D tools with the Second Life client interface. In addition it will also connect to the OpenSim virtual world platform to create packaging and fashion products, provide efficient workflow queues, and allow groups with an interest in the product to collaborate and modify designs.  The program will also generate virtual product samples and accurate factory specifications that enable high quality product mass-manufacturing in the real world.


FRI will offer an IBM-backed and co-developed enterprise solution providing a simpler and more intuitive user interface than currently existing design-industry-oriented software including scalability for businesses of all sizes.  Users of the IBM-built technology could see product sample creation costs and time to market decrease dramatically. 


The initial proof-of-concept solution expected to go live in 2H09 will be piloted with up to 20 international design houses.  Ultimately this solution will be offered as a design service or enterprise installation, to creative industry design houses of all sizes globally.


“As the Fashion Research Institute continues to enhance the IT capabilities of the fashion and consumer packaged goods industries, IBM’s deep knowledge in product design, enterprise systems, and virtual worlds, will help FRI bring new market opportunities to the fashion world,” said Jeffrey Russell, IBM Global Business Services.  A design house implementing this solution could reduce dozens of weeks of design time, minimize the number of physical samples manufactured, and increase product manufacturing quality enough to put into development and production many additional collections”.


The initial agreement was signed in March 2008 but was expanded in August 2008 to include consumer package design.


 About the Fashion Research Institute

Fashion Research Institute conducts research into technology-based initiatives and develops emerging technologies to sweepingly overhaul traditional fashion industry practices and methodologies.  FRI’s mission is to reduce the carbon footprint and change the environmental impact of the industry in ways that are sustainable, replicable, respectful of the practitioners, and meaningful for all stakeholders.  FRI maintains Shengri-La, a five-island complex in Second Life, and an OpenSim complex.  FRI is an IBM business partner, and has been working closely with top IBM architects and researchers over the last year to develop its virtual-worlds-based product design solution. For more information, please visit


About IBM

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Where’s Your Data?

I’ve received several comments with wild-eyed claims and various anecdotes about OpenSim, including a recent one about a simulator with a build of 100,000 prims. Folks, this entry is for you.

While I’m waiting for Spirit to be groomed and tweaked and made ready for my next assault, I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing.  The Fashion Research Institute didn’t actually set out to be alpha testers of open source code. 

As CEO of the Fashion Research Institute, I’ve done my due diligence about virtual worlds. I personally have explored all of the virtual worlds out there in the last year of developing the Fashion Research Institute, and our virtual world-based product design and development technology solution.   But after a hot-eyed tour of the many virtual worlds out there: Blue Mars – stunningly beautiful.  World of Warcraft – lots of users.  Stardolls? Shopping for the tween set…and the many other worlds out there…it became crystal clear that none of the existing virtual worlds was going to be what we needed for our solution.  

These virtual worlds all had issues, not least of which is that most of them are games.  Entertainment for the marketing demographic of choice, which means we can’t use it for our solution – the Fashion Research Institute isn’t serving the media and entertainment industry.  We’re building an enterprise-ready virtual world-based technology solution. 

There’s nothing playful about it, unless you regard business like Edith Wharton: “He had the Saxon love of games, and the best game of all was business.”  We’re in business in the apparel industry, and part of our business demands that we have an appropriate platform.  As I’ve reiterated at my many talks, the real value proposition for virtual worlds isn’t in marketing or serving the consumer base.  It’s in helping enterprises succeed at their business by using virtual worlds to enable their work flow – at which point, the consumers will follow.

The Fashion Research Institute was facing a dilemma.  Second Life tm has graphic quality that is ‘good enough’, and a richly immersive experience.  But Linden Labs’ tm Terms of Service agreement alarms me as an entrepreneur.  It’s fine for individuals, but an enterprise that is serious about their business information and intellectual property would never allow their proprietary information to sit on a Linden Lab server. 

And then, OpenSim was presented to me as an option.  It was an option that was ringed and garnished with a lot of cautious warnings like ‘well, you know, this is very alpha code’, and so on.  And at the point where I first went in, in October of 2007, it really was quite rocky.  But it was also very clear that it was our future, and I’d better embrace it.

And to that end, I had my people set up the first of our OpenSims, and we started playing with them.  I now have the abandoned ruins of four or five OpenSims laying about on my boxes, and of course, Shengri La Spirit alive and well on an IBM-hosted Blade.

Fast forward to where we are now: testing the code.  And, I’d like to think, doing a service to the OpenSim community, and in the spirit of open source, making our data available for everyone to see and use, in the form of this blog, and feedback from Kurt, Sean, Dale, and Zha into the community.  Open source means just that: being open about what you are doing, and showing your work.  Being transparent about it, so everyone can benefit. 

For example, I’ve had a lot of technologists tell me that the prim limit in OpenSim is arbitrary.  I am first and foremost a visual learner – I like to look and see for myself….and that means actually seeing the  performance limitations for substantive builds.  Now, it is true, I could have just asked my IBM team to create a script that would have rezzed prims in a loop till the system ground to a halt.  It wouldn’t really have impressed anyone, particularly those who write loops. And we wouldn’t have learned anything in the process – a machine cannot alpha test because it isn’t human and it does not have the sensitivity to learn from the experience.  All it would have done is dumped in as many prims as it took to grind the machine to a halt. 

But having a server full of prims, with no active observer, or worse yet, an observer who is unable to log and report what she observes, really doesn’t serve any useful purpose.  You can’t actually learn where the FUNCTIONAL prim limit is – you know, the one where the overall user experience degrades to the point it becomes unacceptable to the human user – a clearly human condition that a program can never identify. 

So we’re building out to find and push the functional prim limit, on a specific box, and we’re benchmarking the performance of that machine, with the given installation, and with a lot of user parameters being fed back.  I make no secret about the fact that we’re performance tuning as we go along; that we are not yet pushing textures, inventory, scripts, or a range of other parameters (that’s coming, soon enough).  We’re systematically focusing on prim limits first, which in our case is a human-created substantive build that uses primitive-based objects, including basic system, tortured system, sculptured or flexible primitives.

And we’re going to keep running out onto the ice until we fall through, at which point we will know where the functional prim limit is, for this set of parameters, and we’ll push it further.  When we find that functional prim limit based on our parameters, tuned for the IBM Blade hosting it, we will have a benchmark, which we will share so that the OpenSim community also has that benchmark. 

And this is why Spirit is so important.  Benchmarking performance, and sharing our data.  If you, my reader, have done something awesome with your OpenSim and you haven’t shared your data….well, anyone can SAY they did something.  But in the Spirit of scientific exploration, if you haven’t shared your data, you’ll forgive me if statements about ‘what you did in your OpenSim’ aren’t received as anything more than your marketing material to be circular filed. This is an open source community effort, and in that Spirit, I’d ask you, “Where’s your data?”

I’m not clearing space on my calendar to beat on Spirit because I love games or alpha testing.  I’m doing it to move the platform forward, because alpha testers who can actually test and provide worthwhile feedback are tough to find.  And I’m talking about our work because I feel strongly that the results of my alpha testing are important to the community as a whole, and that there are some very dedicated and capable people out there who will grab the results of what the Fashion Research Institute is doing in our collaboration with IBM, and run with them. 

Personally, I cannot wait to see the results.  Thank you again, to all of the dedicated open source & OpenSim supporters, coders, programmers and technologists who share their work openly and publicly.  You rock.