Thursday, June 30, 2005

Virtual cosmetics and hyperreal imagery

A correspondent recently pointed me to Collision Detection, blog of technology writer Clive Thompson. Many pointers to intriguing research, but I want to comment on Thompson's thoughts on the strange hyperreality of HDTV:

To understand why high-def is so unforgiving, consider the numbers. Today's new top-of-the-line HD televisions can display two million pixels, nearly 10 times the resolution of a regular, old-style TV set. Also, the screens are the size of a tabletop. Watching a show in high definition is thus rather like being Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag -- where every pore on the giants' faces looms like a shell-blasted crater. Many new HDTV owners have tuned in to high-definition celebrity events, only to discover that their favorite stars suddenly look downright haggard.

. . .

"It's almost too realistic, too digital and computery," complains Alexis Vogel, a veteran celebrity makeup artist who recently worked on "Stacked," a high-def show starring Pamela Anderson. "We'd all like to go back to the old days." Makeup artists are now engaged in an arms race with the new medium. But they face a paradox: while makeup is more necessary than ever, its artifice is more obvious. You can't slather on powder when every grain looks like a boulder on your client's face. And interestingly, many cosmeticians predict that high-def could actually reduce the amount of plastic surgery in Hollywood, because the tiny seams look Frankensteinian at such high resolution. High-def is, in essence, a medium peculiarly unsuited to dissembling. "It's harder to change people from their natural form," Vogel adds.

This will probably put an ever-higher premium on genuinely natural beauty -- those lucky few people who require virtually no touch-up. Indeed, high-def fans say that some stars look better in the new medium: Anna Kournikova, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones glow like supernovas, and, Vogel says, "in high-def, Halle Berry's skin is so beautiful and flawless, she's almost a genetic freak."

Maybe. But I believe that humans' capacity for deception surpasses their capacity for sniffing out authenticity, not least because people want to be deceived.

Traditional cosmetics may be inadequate, but there's no reason cosmetics have to be applied to the face, rather than the image of the face. I'm reminded of a rumor I heard, some years ago, that for one of Meg Ryan's later movies, the studio paid a claque of Photoshop monkeys to digitally retouch each individual frame in which her face had appeared. Now, in hi-def, retouching will be more than a matter of blasting people's faces with the clone tool; but there's no reason that retouching has to be done so crudely or so manually. Some future SIGGRAPH proceedings will carry a paper titled (roughly) "Photorealistic real-time cosmetic enhancement of human skin textures", and it will describe how to generate skin with realistic pores, hairs, and a healthy translucent "glow" under a variety of lighting conditions.

Now, this use of virtual cosmetics will merely preserve, approximately, the status quo in our relationship with media images; in a way, it's boring. But the real revolution comes when computational cosmetics becomes commoditized, and built into every digital camera and camcorder. You could, if you wanted, look absolutely fabulous, baby, in every single digitally captured image of yourself. The old fogeys --- i.e., us --- might recoil in horror at the inauthenticity, but kids would undoubtedly embrace it. Everybody could look like a movie star, but only in pictures. Whereas teenagers today grow up yearning to possess the flawless bodies and faces of celebrities, teenagers in this future might grow up yearning to possess the flawless bodies and faces of their own digitally projected selves.

One is tempted to think that this mediated narcissism would be wholly novel, and certainly the phenomenon's sheer scale would be; but in a sense we will only have come full circle in the history of visual representations of people. Because, of course, before the camera's dispassionate warts-and-all gaze became the typical mode of portraiture, all images were mediated by the eyes and hands of portrait artists, who inevitably would idealize the subject (often at his or her request).

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