Are Digital Makeovers the Future of Video Conferencing?

Peter Wicher
Jun 18, 2020

A few months ago, before shelter-in-place rules, working from home was an exception. Suddenly, the question for millions has flipped to, “Who can’t work from home?” Almost instantly, we think nothing of our faces and voices being atomized and beamed across the planet to reintegrate on another’s screen.In the chest-up world of Zoom cameras and not-visible pajama bottoms, we become our faces and voices. It doesn’t matter if you’re six-foot-four or five-foot-one, or whether you’re wearing Prada heels or going barefoot. And we most frequently check a familiar image in a video conference: our own.Digital personas don’t have to be the same as the human facing the camera and mic; often they are not. More and more, we will use algorithms to show ourselves in self-appealing ways.Are Friends and Co-Workers Looking Better?Zoom’s Touch Up My Appearance blends in pits and freckles and moles with a low-pass filter. A recent Facebook patent application describes smoothing filters for live streaming. The software would be able to make "perceived imperfections," such as "blemishes, wrinkles, discolorations, [and] uneven surfaces less noticeable.” Meanwhile, Instagram provides a full-on Hollywood makeup kit.It’s AI, AgainThe eminence gris of facial image enhancement is AI. Software scans scenes for faces then draws digital cutouts around them. Technically called face detection, localization, and segmentation, a chunk of code faithfully responds to every request. Once a face is retrieved, math can transform it into another dimension. Or add another dimension to it.Augmenting Facial RealityUse of augmented reality (AR) video filters has exploded during shelter-in-place as we seek expression and diversion in our screen-facing isolation. Instagram’s AR filters make Photoshopping look archaic. They carry names like GrainA4, Diva, Dream Face, Brain Beauty, Aphrodite, Holy Dragon, Freckles, and Beauty3000. Effects range from Yosemite Sam mustaches to swirling galaxies to Dali-ist warping. Popular filter creator, Omme Akhe, said in April, 2020’s Teen, “I think the beauty of the internet is having control over how you present yourself and your own image, looking futuristic and otherworldly is definitely part of that.”Omme Akhe is part of an exponential business model. Instagram enables a global pool of unpaid filter developers with its Spark AR tool kit. Two years after it opened Spark AR for general use there are 70,000 members in the developer group, Spark AR Community. The 387,000 followers of Instagram’s face.effects judge a non-stop filter pitch contest. To use a filter, users must “follow” its developer. The developer of a hit filter can quickly gain more than 100,000 followers. Developers vie to create the best new content. Followers pour in. More followers means more developers. More developers means more followers. Instagram grows and grows.Real Foreign Language Skills?Appearance aside, we all prefer conversing in our native language. In April 2019, global mega-star, David Beckham, seemed to talk in 9 languages in an "end malaria" PSA. Beckham’s piece had none of the usual dubbing discord. He formed words like a native speaker. Synthesia, a London-based startup, leveraged deepfake AI to move Beckham’s mouth. The PSA used voice-overs, but Microsoft’s Skype Translator has done real-time audio translation for four years.We Will Decide How To Present OurselvesThe Harvard Business Review recently recommended how to maximize our video conference presence. Strong voice, wise framing, focus on the camera, no background distractions. In the future, we may use a Video Persona Specialist to curate our facial and voice features for different occasions. Freemium software will offer custom sliders for key points in our expression, tone, and physical space. A global community of unpaid developers will vie for followers with persona filters. Your video persona will, likely within ten years, appear on multiple screens looking culturally appropriate and speaking several languages. If that’s what you want: it will be your choice.Big Future Issues: Building Trust and Leveraging EqualityTrust is the central issue in working with people. How will we trust that the person on the other end of a video conference is who s/he looks and sounds like? Does it matter? And it is a two-way street: how do you ensure that others in an e-meeting believe that our video persona really represents us? Perhaps in-person meetings will be more desired than ever. In big situations, we may need to see and hear and touch the real humans who we are trusting in our work, schools, and community.Digital tech always happens faster than we think. Future forms of today’s Zoom, Instagram, SnapChat, and Meipai will be globally accessible. Rural social workers will have the same options for meeting presence as C-level executives. How might the coming equality of presence be used to make better decisions? Opening forums to diverse and well-informed players always has benefits.When online meeting presence is equalized, connection and persuasion will rely on ideas and nuance and listening and humor and pauses and all of the communication traits that are uniquely our own. Unless there’s an AI for those, too.This post was written by Peter Wicher. You can find him on LinkedIn here.