Machine learning and artificial intelligence have, for a couple years, been hailed as the death knell to almost everything you can imagine: The information we consume, the way we vote, the jobs we have, and even our very existence as a species. (Food for thought: The stuff about ML taking over Homo sapiens totally makes sense, even if you haven’t just taken a huge bong rip.) So maybe it’s welcome news that the newest application of ML from Google, worldwide leaders in machine learning, isn’t to build a new Mars rover or a chatbot that can replace your doctor. Rather, its a tool that anyone can use to generate custom emoji stickers of themselves.
It lives inside of Allo, Google’s ML-driven chat app. Starting today, when you pull up the list of stickers you can use to respond to someone, there’s a simple little option: “Turn a selfie into stickers.” Tap, and it prompts you to take a selfie. Then, Google’s image-recognition algorithms analyze your face, mapping each of your features to those in a kit illustrated by Lamar Abrams, a storyboard artist, writer, and designer for the critically acclaimed Cartoon Network series Steven Universe. There are, of course, literally hundreds of eyes and noses and face shapes and hairstyles and glasses available. All told, Google thinks there are 563 quadrillion faces that the tool could generate. Once that initial caricature is generated, you can then make tweaks: Maybe change your hair, or give yourself different glasses. Then, the machine automatically generates 22 custom stickers of you.
The tool originated with an internal research project to see if ML could be used to generate an instant cartoon of someone, using just a selfie. But as Jason Cornwell, who leads UX for Google’s communication projects, points out, making a cartoon of someone isn’t much of an end goal. “How do you make something that doesn’t just convey what you look like but how you want to project yourself?” asks Cornwell. “That’s an interesting problem. It gets to ML and computer vision but also human expression. That’s where Jennifer came in. To provide art direction about how you might convey yourself.”
Cornwell is referring to Jennifer Daniel, the vibrant, well-known art director who first made her name for the zany, hyper-detailed infographics she created for Bloomberg Businessweek in the Richard Turley era, and then did a stint doing visual op-eds for the New York Times. As Daniel points out, “Illustrations let you bring emotional states in a way that selfies can’t.” Selfies are, by definition, idealizations of yourself. Emoji, by contrast, are distillations and exaggerations of how you feel. To that end, the emoji themselves are often hilarious: You can pick one of yourself as a slice of pizza, or a drooling zombie. “The goal isn’t accuracy,” explains Cornwell. “It’s to let someone create something that feels like themselves, to themselves.” So the user testing involved asking people to generate their own emoji and then asking questions such as: “Do you see yourself in this image? Would your friends recognize you?”