In a previous article: The Third Revolution in Photography, we looked at the current state of photography and how we got here. The explosion of cameras worldwide, a vast communication network. And trillions of images created each day, many uploaded to the web creating a vast worldwide library of human experiences, history and knowledge.
And now, what will be the Next Revolution in Photography?
The next significant change will be the influence of augmented reality technologies: Computer generated simulations blended with real footage. It will create a manufactured view of the world.
Some say the next big technological change is the VR headsets and VR applications. (Virtual Reality) But to my mind VR is, for now, just a change in screen size. In this case, its a screen that wraps around the viewer.
Of course gamers have been experiencing immersion for many years. Many games involve moving through, and looking around in three dimensional landscapes. And 3d images have already been around in many forms since the very first days of photography.
Yorktown, Va., vicinity. Topographical engineers, Camp Winfield Scott. 1862. Stereoscopic (3d) image.
“The camera cannot lie” is no longer true.
At the moment we usually trust cameras to capture a moment. A real and actual moment.
Recorded images and videos are reliable approximations of a person, location, or event. (unless we are watching actors in a movie or special effects). False images still tend to reveal themselves- usually through subtle inconsistencies in lighting, or movement, or some aspect of production that just doesn’t “feel right”.
That is all about to change.
Emerging technologies now allow for computer generated imagery to be indistinguishable from reality. Even live video can be seamlessly manipulated. As Augmented Reality becomes common place, we will find ourselves unable to differentiate between real life and manufactured content.
Here is an example of real time video manipulation. (6 mins … watch the first two minutes and you’ll understand the gist of it)
Fake voice audio can be generated from voice samples to make anyone “say” virtually anything. (short 60 second youtube clip)
Hasn’t digital manipulation been around forever?
Photo Retouching (“photoshopping”) has of course been a staple of fashion magazines for many years.
Advertising is often criticized for creating impossible expectations of beauty. Fashion magazines distort human proportions and then present these impossible people as real and desirable.
There have been some efforts to curb this unhealthy trend. Overt photoshopping receives the ridicule it deserves when it is poorly excecuted. But with constant and subtle repetition we forget to be critical and start to accept the false images as possible.
The real cost of lying to ourselves.
Most people recognize the mismatch between what they see reflected in their bathroom mirror and the fictionalized “ideal”.
Some accept the advertising images as real and then view their bodies as flawed. A few try to conform to the digital cut-and-paste – by employing the services of a plastic surgeon: Medical cut-and-paste.
This is not a judgement on cosmetic surgery. But it is an illustration of how seductive images can be. Even false ones can affect our view of the world and our place in it. If we can be manipulated into seeing our own bodies as “wrong”, imagine how deeply propaganda may influence our opinion of others?
Are we now at “Peak Reality”?
Our screens have become our windows onto the world. Beyond our immediate environments, we see everything wholly through other peoples lenses. So far, it is still possible to compile a reasonably accurate picture of the world at large. We are now experiencing what I think of as “peak reality”. Trillions of photos catalogue a clear and unflinching view of humanity’s strengths, quirks and shortcomings. I worry that this authenticity is about to be eroded forever.
Augmented reality will inevitably become commonplace.
Manipulation of imagery was once a painstaking task.(Stalin famously had people airbrushed out of all official photos if they had been deemed disloyal, and usually excecuted) With photoshop it has become somewhat easier, but still requiring significant time and effort. Emerging deep-learning computer technologies allow instant, pixel perfect manipulation, and can be applied to a “live” stream.
The cost in time and effort is reduced to nothing – and the results are undetectable. Augmented reality will inevitably become commonplace.
As digital manipulation becomes the norm for all photo and video content, we will become vulnerable to social manipulation or at the very least, unable to trust our own interpretation of the world around us.
Note that this is different to fun instagram filters and other obvious effects that are overlaid onto pics. Those “enhancements” are figuratively and literally transparent.
Augmented reality is more insidious. Most of the image is real, but some parts are not. The very best lies are built on a foundation of truth.
What will change?
Right now I can sit at my computer and watch through the lens of billions of devices. As real events unfold. Within a few years time every piece of media we consume will have some overlay of digital fantasy. Advertising? yes. Product placement – surely. What other uses will be found for this ? Political ? Educational? Social? New services? Games…?
Augmented reality will spawn some useful and fun outcomes, but there will no doubt be more sinister applications of this tech. We will have to wait and see.
A path back to ingorance?
In some ways we may be returning to the days when people had limited reliable knowledge of what the outside world was really like. Information was based on hand drawn illustrations and descriptive words. There wasn’t a clear divide between facts and fiction.
An illustration of an elephant. From the middle ages.
Cameras, and the images they record, hold growing influence over society through politics, commerce, and social networks. They capture events and data.
We have only been taking photos for a couple of hundred years. Imagine a thousand years of authentic photos and video.
So How do we preserve authentic content?
It is important to protect the integrity of what is seen and captured by lenses the world over. That content is a time capsule of history and society. It is a shared human asset of incalculable value. If there is to be digital enhancement or manipulation, perhaps there should also be some indelible mark – maybe embedded in the metadata?
Perhaps, as Sam Harris has suggested, blockchain technology may help to create a durable public record of what is authentic, unmodified content.
Like health labels on our food, we should demand some way to verify the contents of our images and video. To have some control over what we are consuming.
This isn’t a new concept: We already have the expectation that any dramatic re-enactment (played by actors) is labelled as such and not presented as original footage.
Enhancement vs Manipulation
The biggest problem will be the shades of grey. As a professional photographer, I know that all raw images are “unfinished”. Post production and editing is just part of the job.
We now have the tools to take any real footage and manipulate it by 1%, 10% or 100%. In any way we choose. For better or worse, the technology has arrived. Augmented Reality is here to stay and will become a part of our visual landscape.
The real question to ask is: What should be the threshold that requires disclosure to the viewing audience?
Edit : What colour were grandma’s eyes?
Apple’s latest iPhone X allows selfies to have lighting enhancements applied automatically. It takes a real photo of a real person, but subtly morphs it into a “better” one by “adjusting the lighting”.
This feature seems innocuous enough, but will no doubt evolve to include more effects. As an example, look at this article on other possibilities for auto portrait enhancements.
Software analyzes the style from any celebrity portrait and applies it to your selfie. In this case even eye colour can be automatically changed.
Will the family photo album become a work of fiction?
EDIT 2: The Dark Side Shows Its Face
I received a little pushback from a friend about the previous post. “.. we don’t really believe everything that we see politicians say anyway. One modified video isn’t going to have significant impact if theres lots of other authentic video…”
Perhaps he is right and I’m overstating the threat.
But then this story came up on the tech blog Engadget: People have started creating “deepfakes” – using machine learning software to create realistic and embarrassing fake videos.
I think this demonstrates that we don’t yet know the full scope of how this tech might be abused.
Someone will always come up with an ingenious way to apply new technology. Cameras are a powerful tool used by all levels of society.
This means that significant changes to camera and media technology – will also cause significant changes to society. And bring some unpredictable consequences.
I’m curious to know what readers think about augmented reality. Where do you see positive opportunities for this technology? What do you think might be it’s greatest threats?