Why We Can't Get Enough Of Face Filters

We’re so vain

Key Takeaways

  • AI face filter apps are always so popular–the most recent one to go viral is Voila AI Artist. 
  • Experts say we are drawn to use these apps because humans love to alter their self-presentation. 
  • The future of VR avatars will go beyond filters and into a more spatial context.
Someone taking a selfie outdoors with a city blurred in the background.

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The latest artificial intelligence face filter app craze makes you look like a Disney cartoon, and experts say it’s human nature that we are drawn to these apps.

Apps that use AI filters to alter your look in drastic ways are always popular on social media and app stores. The reasoning behind these apps’ viral phenomenon is simple: we love being able to change how we present ourselves to the world. 

"What our digital selves give us is the opportunity to do this dynamically in ways that are unprecedented." Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told Lifewire over the phone. 

The Face Filter Craze 

Remember back in 2019 when everyone made themselves look like they were 80 years old with Face App? The app peaked at 29.6 million users in July 2019 thanks to the #OldFaceChallenege that took over social media. Then there’s Facetune, which allows you to edit a photo of your face entirely, whether that’s making your face slimmer, your smile bigger, and even changing the shape of your eyes.

The latest app to dominate the charts is Voila AI Artist, which is the No. 7 free app and No. 4 free photo and video app in Apple's App Store right now. It uses AI technology to apply filters to your photos to make anyone look like a Disney-drawn cartoon. 

Despite privacy concerns with these filter apps and how viral apps can be used as data collection schemes, people still download them in droves. It’s a fun way to alter your appearance, and Bailenson said that’s what makes the app—and other face filter apps like it—so popular. 

Screenshot of Allison Matyus transformed by the Viola AI Artist app.

"A Filter that can alter the way you look very drastically into an anime character or into an image that looks very different from you age-wise or gender-wise is identity play, and that’s fun," he said. 

Bailenson has been studying the cognitive psychology of VR and AR for years, and his cumulative findings explain why we’re all so drawn to seemingly simple apps that change the way we look. 

“One [result] we've consistently found for two decades now is that people like to transform themselves," he said. "They like to alter their self-presentation, and when one does have a filtered or altered version of the self, this has an effect not only on other people but on themselves, as well.”

Bailenson said just as we would get a haircut before a big work meeting or wear particular clothing for a first date, some of us use face filters to get that specific perception we want to put out there. 

"Even the slightest tweaks of an otherwise lifelike avatar can have noticeable effects on how you are perceived," Bailenson wrote in his book, Experience On Demand

The Future of Our Virtual Identities 

Although applying a filter to a photo of yourself isn't groundbreaking technology, Bailenson predicts that as VR becomes more popular and available, so too will our own "VR avatars." 

"We should expect to see a lot of manipulations of this kind in a world of communication mediated by avatars in virtual worlds," Bailenson wrote. 

Someone looking at a digital avatar of themselves in holographic form.

mikkelwilliam / Getty Images

To take a look at what could be our future, Bailenson is teaching a class at Stanford University about VR, where the entire course takes place in a VR world. He hopes to learn from his students about how people perceive themselves and others when the time comes when VR worlds become more of our reality. 

"One of the things we're studying in this class is the effect of an avatar that either looks like you or maybe one that doesn't," he said. "And really, how important is photographic identity to you as you're communicating your beliefs about classmates and how you interact?"

Right now, avatars of ourselves consist of static pictures. Bailenson, however, believes the future of VR lies in much more high-tech, dynamic versions of these images, capable of mimicking the spatial cues of in-person face-to-face communication.

"Humans have evolved relying on these spatial cues, and we just don't get them online currently," he said. "As immersive technology such as VR and AR slowly begins to replace traditional media such as Zoom for communication, this shift will be driven by the spatial aspect of communication."

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