But behind every filter is a person who draws lines and changes shapes on a computer screen to achieve the desired look. Beauty can be subjective, and yet society continues to promote strict and unattainable ideals that, for women and girls, are disproportionately white, slim, and feminine.
Instagram publishes very little data about filters, especially beauty filters. In September 2020, Meta announced that more than 600 million people had tried at least one of its AR features. The metaverse is a much bigger concept than Meta and other companies investing in AR and VR products. Snap and TikTok capture large numbers of filter users, though Snap is also investing in location-based AR. Meta’s product suite includes Oculus headsets and Ray-Ban smart glasses, but it focuses on what made Facebook popular: the face.
Beauty filters, especially those that drastically alter the shape of a face and its features, are particularly popular and contested. Instagram banned these so-called warping effects from October 2019 to August 2020 due to concerns about their impact on mental health. The policy has since been updated to ban only filters that promote plastic surgery. The policy states that “content must not promote the use or represent the sale of a potentially dangerous cosmetic procedure, according to Facebook community standards. This includes effects that depict such procedures across the lines of surgery.” According to a statement to MIT Technology Review in April 2021, this policy applies “a combination of human and automated systems to review effects as they are submitted for publication.” The creators told me, however, that warp filters are often marked inconsistently, and it’s unclear what exactly encourages the use of cosmetic surgery.
“It was sensational”
While many people use beauty filters just for fun and entertainment, these puppy ears are actually quite a technical feat. First, they require face detection, in which an algorithm interprets the different tones of pixels captured by a camera to identify a face and its features. A digital mask of some standard face is then applied to the real face image and adjusted to its shape, aligning the virtual jaw and nose line of the mask with that of the person. In this mask, the graphics developed by the programmers create the effects seen on the screen. Computer vision technology in recent years has allowed this to happen in real time and on the move.
Spark AR is Instagram’s software development kit, or SDK, and allows augmented reality effects creators to more easily create and share face filters that cover the Instagram feed. It’s in this deep hole of filter demo videos on YouTube that I first encountered Florencia Solari, a creative AR technologist and well-known Instagram filter creator. She showed me how to make a facial filter that promised to lift my cheeks and plump my lips for that surgically enhanced Kardashianesque face shape.
“Thirty-two percent of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
“I have this inflation tool that I’m going to apply symmetrically,” Solari said, “because any modification I make to this face, I want to be symmetrical.” I tried to keep up by dragging the outline of my digital dummy’s cheek up and out with the cursor. I then right-clicked on the map of his bottom lip and selected “Increase” several times, playing God. Soon, with Solari as my guide, I had a filter that, while sloppy and simple, I could upload to Instagram and release to the world.
Solari is part of a new class of AR and VR creators who have made a career of mastering the technology. She started programming when she was about nine years old and was drawn to the creativity of virtual world development. Making your own Instagram filters was a hobby at first. But in 2020, Solari left a full-time job as an AR developer at Ulta Beauty to pursue online AR full-time as an independent consultant. It has recently worked with Meta and several other big brands (which it says it can’t disclose) to create branded AR web experiences, including filters.
Solari’s first filter, called “vedette++”, went viral in September 2019. “I tried to make an interpretation of what the superstar of the future would be,” says Solari. The filter applies an iridescent, slightly green glow to the skin, which is smoothed all over and puffs out under each eye to the point where it looks like half a clementine has been stuffed into each cheek. The lips double in size and the shape of the face adjusts so that a distinct jaw line tapers into a small chin. “It was kind of a mix of an alien, but with a face that looked like it was full of Botox,” says Solari. “It was really sensational.”