Mindbloggling

Current ideas about cultural evolution and the creative processes that power it.

Racism? There’s an App for That

A mobile app aims to eradicate racism through experiments in "self and other."

Pics of Barack Obama and Steve DiPaola, and one of their Face Fries
Photos merge to generate a talking, expressive animated 3D avatar.
We all constantly explore and play with our sense of identity. Just below the threshold of awareness we are mapping ourselves onto other people we encounter, thereby evoking feelings of connection or separateness. We may know that racism is wrong, yet nevertheless almost instinctively distance ourselves from others who look or act in unfamiliar ways; the veil that separates “self” from “other” comes down. While this kind of reflexive psychological distancing may seem intangible or elusive, we feel it when we look in someone’s eyes, and it could of course precipitate something as concrete as World War Three.

But psychological barriers of this kind are not inevitable. They can extinguish naturally when people have opportunities to interact in positive ways with those of different cultures or racial backgrounds. When you get to know someone and feel close to them it can almost come as a surprise when you overhear them talking in a different language and are reminded that that their color and heritage are very different from your own. Increasingly, people are defining themselves more in terms of their interests and attitudes than their racial heritage. Every culture or racial group has its sports enthusiasts, its artists, its trendsetters, … We increasingly feel a sense of kinship with, not those who look like us, but those who see the world as we do, or who play similar roles as ourselves. In short, although the effects of racism are being felt as profoundly as ever as the world gets more populated and people become more mobile, we have reason to believe that racism is related to identity, and identity is malleable. In other words, racism should be a solvable problem.

As it turns out, there’s an app for that. FaceFries < http://www.faceco.co/face-fries/ > is a free mobile app that lets you turn photographs of faces into realistic, talking, expressive, 3D animated avatars. These “face fries” as we call them, can be modified or “modded”, e.g., they can be aged, or given a tattoo, or turned into a zombie or a clown. You can also make them talk; they say back whatever you tell them to say, and their words are accompanied by appropriate facial animation. Two different faces can be “mated” together to create an avatar of a totally new person (e.g., you merged with Lady Gaga or Barack Obama). Face fries can be collected, posted to a cloud, and accessed anywhere by anyone who has downloaded the app. Because the technology makes use of cutting edge research based on years of development and expertise, it is easy to use; the app knows automatically where each facial feature is, and even what sex the face is. By enabling people to “talk through” the faces of people of different races, or mate their own face with faces of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to generate “offspring faces” that merge the characteristics of both input faces, FaceFries is challenging and subtly transforming peoples’ sense of personal identity.

Obama + me -> 4 fries
Pics of Obama and myself merged 4 times to create different "fry".
Face Fries is not unique in this respect. Steve DiPaola at Simon Fraser University, co-founder with me of FaceCo Labs Inc., the company that created FaceFries, uses the phrase “identity leash” to refer to the dynamic relationship between a person’s sense of self and their avatar. Peoples’ sense of identity or self is not confined to the physical body; it does not stop at the skin. It can include family, country, prized possessions, and more recently, avatars. “The more control one has over an avatar”, says DiPaola, “the shorter the identity leash”.

Although avatars and mobile apps like FaceFries are generally thought to be for entertainment purposes only, almost frivolous, it is not farfetched that, by offering a safe playground in which to “find ourselves in each other”, avatars could play a role of historical importance. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a tool for generating animated avatars of transformed versions of ourselves is worth much more. Avatars can facilitate an expanded sense of who we are that doesn’t just appeal to the mind but that affects us at an instinctive, gut level.

At a time when we have the capacity for mass destruction, social media tools that can facilitate the melting of interracial barriers may make us realize that, as in the East Indian myth of Indra’s Net, we are all one. As avatars become more convincing, and you find yourself face-to-face with another version of yourself smiling back at you, you start to have the sense that there is no leash at all, that we are all reflections of each other, and the barriers that separate self from other are an illusion. As preposterous as it sounds to claim that a mobile app could put us on the road to stamping out racism, it may well do just that.

For More Information:

Press release on FaceFries in the Vancouver Sun: http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2014/03/20/facefries-new-app-by-ubc...

Article about FaceFries in Technology.org: http://www.technology.org/2014/03/24/apple-launches-new-facefries...

A demo video can be found here: http://faceco.co/videos.html

 

Liane Gabora, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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