Sharp Ideas & Golden Unicorns: Insights on Instagram’s AR Filters

Tom Emrich
Jul 16 · 8 min read

Reflecting on one month of creating Instagram filters with Facebook’s augmented reality platform Spark AR

For the past month, I’ve been creating augmented realty (AR) filters for Instagram using the Spark AR Studio. If you are not familiar with Spark AR it is Facebook’s augmented reality platform for Mac & Windows that allows you to easily create AR effects for smartphone cameras. Spark AR is currently available to everyone to create and publish effects to Facebook Messenger, while publishing to Instagram is in closed beta (expected to open up later this year).

I’ve been working in augmented reality for over a decade as a product manager, community builder, evangelist and investor but this was my first time trying my hand as a Creator in the space and so I thought I would take some time to reflect on my experience and jot down my thoughts, ideas and learnings.

The platform is like Photoshop for 3D: If you are familiar with canvases, assets and layers in programs like Photoshop or Illustrator you should feel fairly comfortable using Spark AR. I was able to get up and running with Spark AR to create my first filter shortly after I downloaded the program. Facebook has done a good job at providing a number of tutorials, sample projects and documentation to help you understand the fundamentals of Spark AR especially around scene understanding (plane and face tracking) and creating in 3D using the X, Y and Z axis and use of things like a face mesh.

Visual coding can take your filters to the next level: The Patch Editor feature in Spark AR is a fast and easy way to add complexity to your filter without having to know any code. The Patch Editor can be used to add animation, instructions, create enhanced shaders and add interactivity to your filter such as triggering a sound when a user opens their mouth like in my “Yasss!” filter featured below.

It is still early days for the platform which means things are just getting started: Spark AR is in its infancy and it is clear from the number of updates the platform has had even in my short time using it that Facebook is committed to enriching it for its users. At F8 this year, Facebook launched support for Windows and the use of the Patch Editor for audio effects. The Spark AR team is very engaged with the community of Creators listening to their feedback and feature requests and I am sure they have learned a lot from the closed Instagram beta which will help shape their product roadmap.

The Spark AR community is AWESOME: I have found the Spark AR community incredibly warm, welcoming and willing to help. The Spark AR Facebook group is an extremely valuable resource for questions you might have, roadblocks you may face and a source of inspiration and positive reinforcement to support your creating. Many of the early creators have created video tutorials to get you started (check out Super Creator Luke Hurd’s YouTube Channel) and some of them have even shared complete projects and code to help you take your filters to the next level. Creators have rallied around Spark AR and THEY ARE THE FUTURE OF AR helping to drive mainstream adoption and continuing to push the limits of this platform and the value of AR in the consumer space.

Diversity is imperative in augmented reality: All faces are not the same and so it is essential that you test your filter on a diverse set of faces in order for it to be ready for mass distribution. Facebook has done a great job at providing a variety of people to work with in the Spark AR simulator but I found it was essential to go beyond the simulator and test your filter on a number of real faces before publishing it to ensure that it works as expected on all people. It is also important to keep in mind the different devices as well as the version of the Instagram app your users might have as both impact the features and size of the filter you can publish.

Phone batteries aren’t made for AR: Testing filters has made it even more clear to me that we have a serious issue with battery life and augmented reality. The camera is a huge battery drain. It is impossible for me to get through a day of creating and testing with my iPhone unless I have my phone plugged in. On the flip side, as I love playing around with other Creators filters on Instagram, I have noticed that I am burning through both the phone and Smart Battery Case battery before the day is out.

Filters aren’t just about changing your face: While the majority of Spark AR effects are face filters, Spark AR does give Creators the necessary ingredients to go way beyond a digital face paint and Creators are rising to the occasion. Spark AR is being used to create mini-games that use your face as a controller (like Antony Tran’s Eating Your Ego game), filters that react to your mood (like this effect by Andy Picci), world effects that make everyday life magical by inserting 3D objects (like a cat running on a large donut from and recognition of 2D images as markers to bring real world items to life with augmented reality (like WardyWorks book cover featured below).

Filters are a new medium to deliver a message: If you think face filters are just a fun and silly gimmicks to make people spew rainbows, think again. The Spark AR community has shown me that filters are a powerful, personal and highly interactive new medium for expression. Many of the creators in the community are using AR filters to take their artistic talent to a whole new level and convey a critical message as a form of activism and advocacy. Check out Soliman Lopez’s climate change filter, Andy Picci’s use of filters to comment on selfie culture and vanity (featured below), Ajša Zdrav’s filter “My Body”, Filip Custic’s “Macro=Micro and a ton of filters in support of Pride as just a few great examples.

Creating filters will make you see the world differently: Once you are equipped with a tool that gives you the power to edit reality you will never see the world the same way again. I find myself saying “that would make a great filter” a couple of times a day. Or thinking “How would a filter change my experience with this everyday object or moment?”. Suddenly, the world I have lived in for 41 years is a brand new frontier and Spark AR is my telescope helping me explore it.

Filters on Instagram are seeing massive impressions: Spark AR equips its Creators with insights to measure how well they are performing once they are live. This includes impressions, captures and shares which measure the number of times a filter has been captured in photo and video and shared in a Story. The filters I have published are by far the most active digital creations I’ve published on any social network and I just got started exactly a month ago. Top Creators like Christian Venables have reported that their filters have amassed upwards of 10M impressions in the first 24 hours of being published. Instagram users (over 1 billion active users) are HUNGRY for filters and the right filter can quickly go viral.

3D content calls for new ways to measure: While it it is great to have some form of measurement with filters, I hope that views and shares are just the beginning. We still seem to be measuring 3D content with 2D metrics. I would love to see stats around how a user engaged with a filter such as how many times they opened their mouth, what colors from the option picker they engaged with most, and how often they walked around the unicorn etc.

Discovery has become a big challenge: Instagram filter publishing is still in beta but even with just a select number of Creators there is a sea of filters out there to experience. But how to find them and manage them has become a major issue for Instagram. Currently you can unlock all of a Creators filters by following them but after following just a few your filter carousel is flooded with filters making it hard to wade through. The best way to discover a filter is through Stories you follow. When a user posts a Story using a filter the filter name appears at the top left for you to tap on to try it. As well, many Creators have chosen to feature their filters in their Story Highlights on their bio page or even create their own web page to feature their filters and adding a link as part of their profile. Facebook has made some significant updates to improve discovery including adding a new tab to Creator pages to display all of the filters they have created (screenshot below). I expect that we will see more changes on Instagram soon to make it easier for users to find filters and Creators to market them. Another challenge is that the filters being created for Facebook Messenger are not accessible on Instagram and vice versa which can cause some confusion. It will be interesting to see if Facebook consolidates filters across their platforms (including eventually What’s App) in the future.

Branded filters are not allowed on Instagram…yet: The Instagram closed beta is open to personal accounts only which means that your account cannot be a branded account or connected to a Facebook page. According to the Spark AR team, a select few brands are testing publishing flows for branded filters on Instagram and once the beta is over, it is expected that branded filters that follow the Spark AR policies will be accepted (Note: Facebook Messenger is already open to all Creators including brands). On one hand the fact that the current filter experience on Instagram is void of advertisers has allowed artistic and experimental creation to thrive but on the other it has left many Creators who are looking at this platform as part of their career with no official way to make money. I am excited to see the floodgates open later this year when the beta is over but hope that the Instagram filter scene doesn’t lose its underground, offbeat edge it currently possesses today. Savvy brands will look at the trends being created now and maintain this essence once they are allowed to play to keep a more organic approach to this new opportunity.

Filter creators and reviewers are the new “Influencers”: Instagram filter Creators and accounts that are dedicated to reviewing them (such as FrenchSinger, LensList, HelenBreznik, JulesXFilters, Filtermuse and Face.effects) are seeing their follower counts surge. Beyond followers, filters from creators are collaborating with celebrities and brands (like Christian Venables’s work with Brie Larson on “Brie Pearls” and Asad Malik’s work with Poppy on “Scary Mask”), being featured in fashion magazines (like this Teen Vogue feature), inspiring real-world looks (such as this T-shirt collaboration with Allan Berger) and even redefining beauty (such as the brilliant work from Johanna Jaskowska).

Are you creating with Spark AR? Share your experience and thoughts in the comments of this post! To check out my Instagram filters and filters I share from other Creators in my Instagram Story, follow me on Instagram @TomEmrich.

Written by

VP of Product at @the8thWall , formerly @super_ventures , @ARealityEvent , @WeAreWearables . On a mission 2 make #AugmentedReality for Everyone! Opinions my own

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