Just Add Stormtroopers

These aren’t the deer you’re looking for….move along!

AR is here and it could be a real menace

It’s hard to think of any photograph that isn’t improved by the addition of a stormtrooper. Google’s latest update to the camera app on the Pixel phone allows you to add a stormtrooper (or other characters, but let’s face it, Stormtroopers are still the coolest even though it’s 40 years since Star Wars first hit the screens) to any photo or video. This is a very mainstream example of Augmented Reality technology in action. And while it’s huge fun, it begs enormous questions about the future of visual evidence.

It’s incredible that it’s technically possible — rendering a moving 3D character with realistic lighting and shadows was until recently the preserve of movie studios with special effects budgets of millions and the power of massive server farms working for days to render these visual effects. Now the phone in my pocket can suddenly achieve this in real time as I take a photograph. You can just drag and drop a character into your photo or video. The only clue for the majority of people, who don’t understand the astonishing computational complexity of this, is that the phone does get noticeably warm if you get carried away with the stormtrooper additions. Currently only available on Google’s own high-end Pixel phones, I’d expect this technology to be commonplace on all mid range phones within a year.

This is the culmination of a trend that’s been gaining prominence in the past couple of years, led by Snapchat filters that were capable of adding bunny ears or dog noses to your face in messages or, more recently, the clever face-mimicking technology in Apple’s iPhone X that creates animoji. But these lack the sophistication and ease of use of the latest AR stickers from Google. As one person I showed commented, “It looks sooo real”.

I Can’t Believe My Eyes

Photoshop has for many years made us suspicious of photographs — but it always required time to retouch photos and a fair degree of computer power and skill to operate. Now though, we can no longer trust what the camera captures as our phones manipulate the image in real time. While it’s easy enough to determine that a stormtrooper is a digital addition, there are endless scenarios where the maxim “the camera never lies” is no longer true.

Although AR will prove hugely useful in numerous fields, it will also mean it’s never been easier to manipulate images to add convincing elements to a scene. Given the extent to which people will already uncritically share misleading images, e.g. in a time of a terrorist attack, I can envisage a rash of false alarms caused by AR images going viral.

While we await the launch of AR glasses promised by the likes of $4.5 billion-valued startup Magic Leap, our smartphones are going to be the first common-place examples of AR technology. It’s frivolous fun adding stormtroopers to photos, but as analyst Benedict Evans often says, new technologies frequently look like “just toys” in their formative stages. The fusion of the real world with overlaid augmenting content will not be a toy for long; quite simply, it’ll change the way we look at the world.

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David Kerrigan

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Thoughts about technology and society. Author of three books: details at https://david-kerrigan.com