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Facial recognition technology is right on the cusp of going mainstream. It’s already making an appearance in daily life, from social media and mobile apps to shopping malls, billboards, sports games and even protests. A similar technology, computer vision technology, is powering the databases of popular Google solutions such as YouTube, Image Search, Picasa and Google Goggles.
Despite privacy concerns and regulations, facial recognition technology is likely to become more ubiquitous in the very near future, and this will trigger a re-examination of how we define and perceive identity, how we relate to others, and the role of community in society. As such, it will push beauty ideals to new heights as consumers seek to find and separate themselves from others. But should we plan for the even greater implications that this technology will have on future generations?
Face of the Future
Facial recognition technology works by analyzing a person’s biometric data: the unique facial measurements and indicators that can deliver a comprehensive, yet superficial, estimate of a person’s ethnicity, age, gender and beyond.
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Technology already exists in which users can upload photos to find their celebrity look-alike, reunite with long-lost family members, and even locate and adopt a dog with similar facial features.
SceneTap, a mobile app for bar patrons in Chicago, identifies and then publishes real-time statistics and demographics of the current crowd, including average age and ratio of men and women.
The technology is also being deployed for criminal profiling use within militaries, airports and localized police initiatives. Heralded by The New York Times as the “democratizing of surveillance,” marketers are also getting more facially savvy, using “smart signs” that detect the demographics and attention level of passersby to deliver personalized advertising messages.
The technology will continue to rapidly evolve into new areas, enabling companies, governments and the general public to leverage it for their own uses. Within the beauty industry, the technology is already taking hold. On many beauty brand websites and online communities, users can upload photos of themselves to virtually experiment with cosmetics, hair color and styles, even skin tone. This technology is transformational, ever evolving into a more personalized experience with additional trend-led implications in the beauty category.
Building Niche Communities
In Viewpoint Magazine, futurist Richard Lamb explores a new consumer-generated marketing paradigm in which consumers, enabled by technology, are seeking out others with similar, often niche, interests and uniting in online microcommunities. According to Lamb, these microcommunities have a strong group identity with distinct guidelines for being “in” or “out.” Members influence other members and also influence a larger community of hundreds or thousands that monitor and try to copy the group’s behavior, interests, tastes and even appearances. This phenomena, which Lamb refers to as “twinning,” is a reaction against mass marketing and global homogeneity. Because identity can be reinforced by similarities within the group, brand endorsements carry more weight as trusted opinions in their broader network than typical peer recommendations or even brand communications.
As facial recognition technology becomes more mainstream, Internet users could likely seek to create niche communities based on similarities in physical features. Instead of using Google to search for those with similar names or interests, users will seek out facial, or even physical, doppelgängers. While Google owns the current technology, it has yet to make this feature available to consumers. Sites like findyourfacemate.com, a dating website that matches users based on the compatibility of their facial structures, connect to the concept of “twinning” in a beauty-oriented way.
As marketing influences the transition from a mass model to more of a one-to-one relationship, a similar evolution is also taking place in the origins of beauty ideas with microcommunities and consumer-owned brands emerging as the new influencers. As more people look to small groups to reaffirm their identity, achieving the standard beauty ideal of the niche group will be increasingly important.
As online and off-line worlds collide and the line separating them becomes increasingly blurred, so will the line between avatars and real-life personas. In this context, consumers are likely to transfer avatar like qualities into beauty ideals and icons, and therefore seek to perfect both. Beauty consumers will look for tools to help them achieve avatarlike facial perfection in each area: lips, teeth, eyes, hair and skin. In Asian countries in particular, there is already a trend toward avatarlike beauty perfection as beauty and fashion ideals blur anime like traits into real beauty ideals. The Lolita trend has a pervasive presence with many niche subgenres in Japan, some of which use an anime princess as the beauty ideal with a porcelain doll appearance, including fake eyelashes and blond hair weaves. In Singapore, high-end shopping malls highlight the importance of beauty perfection, where a luxury shopping experience includes visiting beautification boutiques that each offer hyper specialized services such as trichology (hair solutions), eyebrow consultations, Lasik surgery, mediboutiques, dental art and endodontics, among other aesthetic services, with walk-in options also available for instant gratification.
As facial recognition technology connects those with similar facial features, it will also likely prompt others to seek out hyper-unique methods to differentiate themselves from their doppelgängers. Individuality will be remade and new, and elaborate forms of temporary and permanent decoration will take center stage. Fashion trends are already showing signs of this need for augmented differentiation, often borrowing traits from other species—including mammals, birds and reptiles—and further blurring the line between human and animal. Recently, designers such as Alexander McQueen and Prada have pursued the serpent or mermaid inspired angle. Mythical symbols like mermaids, unicorns and fairies are making their way into beauty trends in the form of temporary expressions in color cosmetics, fake eyelashes, eye jewelry and nail art. Additionally, mythology is manifesting in more permanent options like tattoos and even surgical procedures like subdermal implants to create fantasy-inspired facial features.
During the 2011 London riots, Metropolitan Police uploaded images of rioters to a Flickr account in an attempt to identify suspects. In response, rioters were cautioned to obscure their identity, remove any distinctive jewelry and wear nondescript clothing.
As facial recognition technology becomes more widely used, anonymity will also become highly valued. Similar to heightened individuality, consumers will look to beautification techniques in order to obscure their identity and achieve anonymity. As more of this technology is deployed for real-time targeting and criminal profiling, virtual or hologram masks could see more widespread popularity, as well as extreme medical procedures that seek to erase any association between personal identification information—such as social security numbers or a poor credit score—and an individual’s appearance.
Facial recognition technology is in its ascendency. A Carnegie Mellon researcher specializing in the technology pinpointed a potential implication, saying, “Through natural evolution, human beings have evolved mechanisms to assign and manage trust in face-to-face interactions. Will we rely on our instincts or on our devices when mobile phones can predict personal and sensitive information about a person?”
It is now not a question of if facial recognition will be adopted by businesses and consumers, but when and how.
Valerie Jacobs is a group director for LPK Trends and a design forecaster focusing on the development of trend analysis for LPK client brands. Jacobs is also a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, and is a guest lecturer for the In-Store Marketing Institute, Design Management Institute and the Industrial Designers Society of America.