Beauty & The Virtual Beast

L’Oreal Modiface App

“Today was a total waste of makeup.” Who would have thought that a t-shirt slogan could encapsulate our sentiments in the face of the Coronavirus? The past ten weeks saw many relaxing their wardrobes and their beauty routines — embracing the “fresh” (read unmade up) face. Women under stay-at-home orders not seeing anyone other than immediate family (who presumably already know what they look like sans fards), face the questions: do I need to look more put together onscreen for video conferencing, or offscreen for my general well-being?

Does venturing out with a mask negate the need to put on anything other than eye makeup? Should I even bother with that when I feel so anonymous? Can masked anonymity be a good thing?

Many women partaking in at home video calls have made a seemingly welcome discovery: a “hidden” feature on Zoom known as the “Touch up my appearance” button, which subtly “smoothes” one’s skin much like an Instagram filter. What if they want more serious help?

There’s a Snapchat Snap Camera makeup filter for video conferencing platforms. One can control how “Kardashian-esque” one wants to look – ahem, eyelash extensions! I know it’s tempting but resist the urge to upload the unicorn head or dog face filter when your humorless boss is on the call.

Sephora Makeup App

What happens if you’re shopping from home and are unsure how to determine what cosmetic product or color is for you? Now that Ulta and Sephora are reopening locations, they’ve chosen to go “tester-free.” No swiping allowed, even on your hand (let alone on your masked face), and of course, no actual makeup application or “human touch” is permitted. Some cosmetic companies are looking into producing single-dose sample dispensing systems – an expense that not all brands will justify.

Enter Augmented Reality (AR): new beauty technology that allegedly offers consumers the ability to simulate trying on makeup in precise detail on live video. Some apps allow you to see how you would look with anything from a particular lipstick to a full face of makeup, different hair color or style, or even eye and sunglass frames. These apps can be accessed at a store kiosk, and on your computer, laptop, or phone.

Here’s how it works: You open the app allowing it access to the camera, which gives a live video stream of your face to their software. The software sends the company servers your video data plus all the info you provide in a questionnaire—the software processes by identifying hardpoints (features) of your face, skin texture, and coloring.

You can select products you would like to try, or it will give you recommendations. Some apps feature several brands or just one brand in the case of a particular brand’s website. Next, the server edits your video to demonstrate the result, or how you would theoretically look with the suggested makeup. Click “buy it now” to purchase products.

L’Oreal Hair Color Kiosk

It was eye-opening to find that this technology (akin to See My Fit, online shopping’s simulated look at clothing on different body types) has been around since 2014. According to Berkly Foster, creative director at Modiface, a company acquired by L’Oreal in 2018, AI and AR technology in the beauty industry enabling virtual makeup try-on and digital skin assessment picked up steam and “increased in realism when it moved into live rendering versus 2-D. They are now as true to life as they can be,” she said during a Podcast TwoFiveSix episode last year. Modiface has partnered with Amazon Beauty to feature products available for purchase on the online retail behemoth. This technology is at MAC stores and online with various brands, prestige, and mass markets.

Several other services are using this technology, including PerfectCorp’s YouCam, Shiseido Telebeauty, Sephora Virtual Artist App, Ulta’s GlamLab, and MeituGenius Cosmetic Promotion Assistant. In theory, this sounds great. I can look like a pulled-together professional without having to get up hours before that Zoom call! In real life, I can buy products that will work for me – bye-bye drawers full of “makeup mistakes.”


“Intelligent AR makeup trial is the trend of the cosmetic retail industry for its obvious advantages in marketing, especially during the period when it’s inconvenient for users to go to the offline stores,” Eagle Lee, head of Meitu, a Chinese company promoting this technology, recently told online industry publication CosmeticsDesign-Asia. “It’s a forever free plan[for businesses]… which means brands can easily access it and promote products on it. Secondly, it improves efficiency by offering all colors of a product to users at the same time. Thirdly, users can share products directly to other platforms, which will be a sustainable promoting channel for brands even after the pandemic.”

“If it’s free online, you are the product.” -Douglas Rushkoff

In 2011, Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist, and writer, coined a phrase: “If it’s free online, you are the product.” This rule applies to Facebook, Google, or any of the big online tech companies that harvest your data. The beauty apps’ case could be even worse as you are submitting photos and videos of yourself in real-time, which are being used for facial recognition, and almost certainly the selling of your data to other companies — all under the guise of having created a helpful tool to assist you. The vast majority of these apps are extremely sketchy in the personal data they collect and how they handle them. When is the last time you read the Privacy Policy?

YouCam AI Facial Recognition Photo

The apps know and use your phone number, phone make, model, and all other technical identifying information. For example, PerfectCorp YouCam tracks every bit of information from how often you use it to how often and what time you enter the store, even if you haven’t engaged with the YouCam on that visit. It does this by permanently associating that phone with your name and face.

Mood Sensor

This will probably later be a supplemental revenue stream for PerfectCorp (or any company doing this, it certainly did not stop Facebook) when they sell this data to other stores, organizations, and governments. It will also record details such as who you’re with, how long you are in the store, what you look at, and what kind of mood you’re in based on your facial expressions.

Now that they have your visage and other vital info, they can stalk you online, including your social media accounts and garner more information — for which the least nefarious purpose is to enable them to pitch more products. Just beware: It could get really ugly in the pursuit of beauty. Wearing masks in public will only save us for so long before they find a way around that too. Watch: Video on PerfectCorp’s business-facing website boasting of these features

Besides the creepy tech spying aspect, there is also an aspect of delusion inherent to this medium. The AR depiction of you is like a mirage of you living your best life. The idealized fantasy is presented to you in real-time, as if you could reach out and touch it. Meanwhile, you are looking at a fictionalized version of yourself the same way you would look in a mirror – only this isn’t you – it’s a digital deception. You’re told you will become an unattainable version of yourself when you buy that beauty product(s). Have we all gotten that vain?

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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