By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/16/2007 7:35:30 PM ET 2007-11-17T00:35:30

A man enters a clear cylindrical chamber resembling the outer shell of a revolving door and steps onto a curious-looking doormat. A few seconds later, security personnel at an airport would know whether he was carrying a handgun or plastic explosives. At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., he’s just as apt to leave armed with a printout telling him that a pair of Levi’s 514 slim 38 x 32 jeans will fit him to a T.

Researchers at the lab had security in mind when they designed their whole-body scanner as a hands-off approach for detecting concealed weapons. In an “Aha!” moment, staff engineer Doug McMakin and his collaborators also realized the technology could precisely measure the human body.

Using a radio wave-based technology that repeatedly “illuminates” the body from top to bottom, the scan can indeed pick out security threats hidden beneath a shirt or pair of pants — whether metal or plastic. But as the technology arrives in airports and courthouses around the country, including a trial run at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that began in October, the application is also being hailed as a quick, easy and shame-free way to help shoppers find that perfect fit.

“It’s like you go to a photographer and the camera makes an image,” said McMakin, who demonstrated the technology during the annual New Horizons in Science conference.

The scanner’s image, though, is produced by bathing the body in harmless, low-powered radio waves that cannot penetrate the skin past one-tenth of an inch — unlike deeper penetrating X-rays. The scanning signals are similar to those used by cell phones, in fact, though cell phone radio waves are actually 350 times more powerful. The millimeter wave holographic scanning technology, as McMakin and his colleagues call it, produces a “point cloud” of more than 200,000 reflected signals that are transferred to a high-speed computer. Depending on the application, the result can be an accurate and high-resolution body image or a set of neck, waist and inseam measurements.

Once inside the “Transporter Room,” as it’s jokingly called at the laboratory, an over-sized wand resembling a rolled-up gray carpet revolves around a person who has been instructed to leave keys and other pocket contents behind and stand motionless on a centered mat (a third printed instruction: “Click heels together three times, reciting, ‘There’s no place like Rome, there’s no place like Rome, there’s no place like Rome.’ ”)

Within the revolving wand, 196 tiny antennae repeatedly send out and receive the radio waves. After a 10-second scan, simulated shoppers at the national lab are unlikely to find themselves transported to cobbled streets and shouts of “Ciao, bello!” but instead are greeted with a printout telling them in plain English which pair of ruler straight or ‘matchstick’ skinny jeans are made just for them.

Levi’s has tried out the technology licensed to Conshohocken, Pa.-based Intellifit Corp., as have women’s retailers Lane Bryant and Fashion Bug. Albert Charpentier, founder and chief technology officer for Intellifit, said his company has installed other body scanners to help produce custom military uniforms in Malaysia and is testing out a system in the U.S. that will yield custom body armor measurements for police officers.

Although Charpentier said his company was initially looking for a solution to ill-fitting clothes bought online, he expects to begin rolling out Intellifit kiosks in high-volume shopping malls, where shoppers will be able to select fabrics and colors by hand and receive custom-fit jeans in the mail two weeks later. It helps that the design of the scanning chamber is attention-grabbing, Charpentier said. And the technology is quick and noninvasive, he pointed out, unlike other existing body-measurement methods that require shoppers to get undressed and put on tights before having their picture taken.

Versions used to select best-fit clothes for impatient or exacting customers don’t produce actual body images, while versions used by airports capture computer images in which travelers appear bald and naked, but with blurred faces. To address privacy concerns, security personnel monitor the computer images in a remote location where they never see the individual.

The technology, licensed to Woburn, Mass.-based L-3 Communications for security applications, has been incorporated into more than 100 security systems around the world, from the Cook County Courthouse in Illinois to Baghdad’s Green Zone. At the Phoenix airport, Transportation Security Administration personnel are trying out the scanner as a secondary screening alternative for passengers who’d rather not be frisked. Additional tests are planned for New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

McMakin and his collaborators at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are already looking ahead to other potential uses such as more accurate body mass indexes for the health industry; body-perfect avatars or interactive human animations for the gaming industry; form-fitting and ergonomic car seats and office chairs; and accurate measurements for prosthetic devices.

Although he’s excited about the range of applications, McMakin later said he has a rather personal interest in using the technology to find out how he’d look in a suit and tie or pair of jeans — without having to try them on. “I don’t like to shop,” he readily admitted. “My wife drags me to all kinds of places.”

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