Behind the Scenes of Face Swap Live, the ‘Creepy’ App That Launched a Thousand Memes

Behind the Scenes of Face Swap Live, the 'Creepy' App That Launched a Thousand Memes

When I smile, Hilary Clinton smiles back. When I raise an eyebrow, hers lifts in unison, like a bizarre game of Simon Says. When I grimace, the wrinkles on her forehead deepen, her lips crinkling and pursing to one side.

Thanks to the wonders of computer vision and a goofy new app called Face Swap Live, I am controlling Hilary’s face – with nothing more than the expression on mine.

If you haven’t yet experienced the viral, nightmarish joys of Face Swap Live, it’s well worth the 99 cents it’s currently selling for. Download the app and point your phone’s camera at a friend, and it will convincingly map their face, in real time, onto someone else’s: yours, a baby’s, Beyonce’s, Richard Nixon’s.

Since appearing in the app store about a month ago, the app hasn’t strayed far outside of Apple’s most-downloaded offerings, peaking in the United States. at No. 14. And while the technology isn’t perfect – the app’s first truly ubiquitous meme was a disastrous face-swap between a dad and his baby – the results are lifelike enough, enough of the time, that the “Today” show dubbed it “Kafkaesque” and the Daily Dot called it “creepy.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Jason Laan, one of the app’s two creators. “But behind the fun, there’s some really amazing, hardcore technology.”

Laan, a chemical engineer by training, has a long history of turning serious tech to more frivolous purposes: In the eight years since he founded his app development firm, Laan Labs, he estimates that they’ve launched around 50 products, from Tap DJ (“mix and add FX to your iPod music!”) to Dog Vision HD (“see the world how your dog sees it!”).

But for Laan, computer vision – the science of training computers to extract and understand information from pictures, the same way humans do – has always possessed a special intrigue. Researchers at places like Google and IBM, with their extraordinary 3-D cameras and lightning-fast processing speeds, had enabled computers to catalog objects, recognize faces and even interpret feelings. Laan and his partner, Will Perkins, began wondering if the iPhone’s improving camera and processing capabilities would allow them to try out similar projects, albeit less seriously.

So late last winter, Face Swap Live was conceived. The app that has since launched a thousand YouTube videos, Imgur posts and nightmare memes.

Face-swapping makes a pretty ideal consumer application for the new computer vision tools, incidentally. While the technology is novel, the art form is not: Know Your Meme traces the first instances back to the early aughts, when the visages of an eccentric Vietnamese singer and and a 16-year-old Chinese kid began showing up on other bodies and in other places.

In 2004, the Something Awful forums fatefully began switching the faces of babies and their grandparents. It was an onerous Photoshop process, a labor of lolz, if you will: isolating the faces manually; copying, moving and rotating them; blending and feathering the mismatched edges until the heads and bodies fit. Even all that work made for some pretty unholy collages: The babies’ heads pixelated, over-large; the grandparents’ shrunken and neckless.

“Wasn’t that (expletive) creepy?” exclaimed an SA writer in 2004. “Now I have to go to bed … Oh, the dreams I’m going to have.”

But the appeal of the face-swap has always been its weirdness – the degree to which it inverts and diverges from reality. The best face-swaps are also the most surreal: Tom Cruise as Jack Nicholson, Barack Obama as George Bush, Nicholas Cage as literally everybody.

“There’s something about absurdity that gives Internet memes a lot of traction,” said Britney Summit-Gil, a doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studies Reddit culture. “Absurdity has a long, storied history of entertaining humans.” And it’s not so different from awe, she says – one of our more viral emotions.

Oddly enough, however, we’re moving closer to a world where face swaps are both less “awesome,” in the sense of inspiring wonder, and less obviously absurd. Thanks to innovations like the ones that spurred Face Swap Live, face-swapping no longer requires any time at all, to say nothing of expensive editing software and human effort.

Just look at how fast Face Swap Live is, an accomplishment Laan and Perkins credit to a basket of cutting-edge algorithms. When they look at your face, they simply look for reference points – the corners of your eyes where the color changes, the curve of your chin – and then line them up with those points on another face, auto-smoothing and blending them in.

With better cameras, Laan and Perkins say (3D cameras, particularly, like the ones Intel just unveiled atCES), our smartphones could do far more than copy-paste a face. Already, Disney is working on a technology that can map your face down to its individual wrinkles. At Stanford University and Germany’s Max Planck Institute, researchers have developed a technique that photorealistically transfers one person’s facial expressions to another – not face-swapping, in the traditional sense, but face-hijacking via algorithm.

These researchers believe we’re moving closer to a world where remote workers can Skype into meetings half-clothed, their faces mapped onto a body in a business suit. They suspect we’ll be able to tweak actors’ bad takes and zap unsuspecting bystanders from live TV news.

Far outside the realm of face-swapping, real-time computer vision – particularly of human bodies and faces – will enable a million other technologies: self-driving cars, diagnostic computers, robots that understand emotions and react accordingly. We won’t even delve into the more dystopian applications, like live video-manipulation or mass surveillance.

I ask Perkins and Laan about that, because it’s seems odd: a silly app that advances a promising, and ominous, technology. Do they contemplate the juxtaposition at all, I wonder?

“We just want to have fun,” Laan says. Then they both laugh nervously.


In Pakistan too, a debate about sexual harassment in the workplace

In Pakistan too, a debate about sexual harassment in the workplace
Photo Credit: Aamir Quereshi/AFP
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In the eyes of many, the offices of Pakistan are filled with lecherous bosses. All too often, working women have tales of their perversions: the lesser ones include gaze and glance, the occasional grope, the unwanted text message, the innuendo; the bigger ones include invitations to meet outside the office, over lunch or dinner – with plum assignments, promotions, job security and professional reputations hanging in the balance.

Resignation is no guarantee of reprieve; there are reference letters to be obtained, future employment to be worried about. In an expensive, inflation-wracked and increasingly competitive Pakistani workplace, there are many women who continue to be targets for men with power.

The arithmetic of want and need is in display; divorced women, single mothers, the older and the unmarried are particularly vulnerable to harassment. In the words of one single mother who endured 10 years of harassment, the pursuit is constant, and any attempt to escape is punished further with denials of promotions and humiliation before colleagues. Co-workers, often witnesses, say nothing, eager to avoid a situation that could result in retaliation, a loss of their own positions. Sexual harassment from superiors is hence often coupled with isolation by colleagues who watch, witness and withdraw. The harassed are not only the persecuted but also the pariah.

Legal protections

There is a law against all this in Pakistan. The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, which will be six years old, is a thorough document. The code of conduct included in it defines harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature, or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply with such a request or is made a condition for employment”.

It goes on to add that “the above is unacceptable behaviour in the organisation and at the workplace, including in any interaction or situation that is linked to official work or official activity outside the office”.

The abuse of authority, creating a hostile work environment, and retaliation are the three categories that mandate action against a harasser. Detailed stipulations are set out for the establishment of investigative committees, ombudspersons, etc, who are charged with resolving the issues raised. A range of penalties from censure to outright dismissal are postulated. All employers are required to display the code of conduct prominently on their premises.

When the law was passed in 2010, it was feted as a success. It would take time for its provisions to change the culture of the workplace, the more circumspect said. Change comes slowly but a law is a first step; a legislative commitment supported by elected representatives’ signals that the path ahead will be a different one, in this case one where the harassment of women in the workplace would not be permitted.

Not much has happened since then. Harassment is still rampant in the workplace (the majority of workplaces have little idea as to what the code of conduct is, let alone of the requirement to display it visibly in employee areas).

Women still regularly report being verbally harassed and even physically assaulted by their superiors who, making calculations regarding their need for a job, their desire to get ahead, their inability to refuse, unabashedly continue with such acts. In the face of unwanted advances, Pakistan’s women continue to find themselves alone, unsure of where to take their complaints and how to protect themselves.

Even in the development sector, where the very agenda of many organisations is to empower women, similar problems persist. In one, a co-founder of an organisation faced so much harassment by a male colleague that she was ultimately forced out. New, more pliant women hired to take her position have since complained of similar problems. The man in question, however, remains untouched, undoubtedly displaying similarly harassing behaviour to new prey. Other men have come to his defence – perhaps recognising their own behaviour in those of others and eager to ensure that no one gets punished.

Misogyny is manufactured in two major flavours in Pakistan. The first is on the premises of religious obscurantists whose hankering for the reinstatement of a strictly segregated society sees the harassment-filled workplace as a grim substantiation of their warnings. Women should not be in the workplace at all, the male conscience is unable to police itself.

Daily doses of misogyny

The second, one that wrongly labels itself as liberal and progressive, imagines it to mean a licence to harass and harangue. A woman’s willingness to put up and shut up is, in its mind, the product of this progressivism, its illogical mindset equating women in the public sphere with women sexually available to all men who may want them. The two flavours compete, their poisons infecting the working lives of women – doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, bankers, teachers, professors and countless others – who are daily force-fed these bitter morsels of misogyny.

Laws alone cannot change society; the sexual harassment of women (and nearly everyone who reads this article either knows someone or is someone who has faced harassment) continues because it is considered permissible, something women ask for when they leave their homes.

This belief is reflected all the time and everywhere in Pakistan, in soap operas that vilify working women as predators out to seduce innocent men, to workplace conversations in which men dissect the desirability of their female colleagues, their participation often a measure of a masculinity that fears competition from women. In the matter of sexual harassment in Pakistan’s workplaces, there are the guilty and the very guilty, they are far too many men complicit, quiet, eager to embrace or enforce their right to harass.


Drastic plastic: a look at Barbie’s new bodies

Drastic plastic: a look at Barbie’s new bodies
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Featured in a clear cut silhouette of her new plumper body option on the cover of Time Magazine on January 28, Barbie was declared to be the “American Beauty”, heralding an in-depth series of features on Mattel’s new design campaign of multiple Barbie body profiles and skin tones.

Time’s intense analysis is the latest chapter in three decades of Barbie’s popular and creative media crossovers into a knowing, adult culture, rather than the playground.

The dominant doll

In 1997 Lisa Jervis described Barbie in Mother Jones magazine as “one of the most popular women in America”. Barbie has been a high-profile cover girl before, for example on the iconic annual Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated in 2014 (combining two perennial North American flashpoints of criticism around the objectification of women in contemporary public life).

While Barbie has featured frequently in intense debates around female body image and the inappropriate sexualisation of young girls, the doll has also documented and symbolised aspects of the female experience, changing fashions, changing career and educational expectations, a wide range of popular cultural and everyday aspects of female lives.

Barbie is a highly ubiquitous symbol of female identity, who has generated a uniquely live energy by mere longevity and tenacious presence within the public eye, and acquired anuncanny life beyond her plastic materialism .

Time addressed Barbie as both cultural phenomenon and business case study. Mattel’s global reach, cutting-edge marketing, early uptake of innovations in supply chain management and corporate dominance of toy-buying ensured it stayed in the public eye for half a century or more, buoyed up by the Barbie brand’s unparalleled dominance of the doll market.

Mattel particularly pioneered advertising tie-ins and sponsorship of children’s television content in the 1950s, and launched Barbie is a series of dreamy, yet formalised, evocations of high fashion and haute couture in television advertisements , proclaiming “Barbie you’re beautiful”.

Frequently flexible

Yet for a decade or more Mattel has become progressively less assured in how the doll is developed and presented, finally instituting a two-year-long review of Barbie’s image and her relevance to changing parameters of contemporary girlhood and new modes of parenting.

Her January 2016 changes of image and body type immediately engaged journalists around the world: Barbie has always provided good copy.

In her 1995 monograph Barbie’s Queer Accessories academic Erica Rand questioned whether this popularity was spontaneous, or due to Mattel’s assiduous and astute command of media practices.

The speedy uptake of the “new body” story reflected widespread excitement that Barbie was finally becoming part of the everyday world of imperfect women, who are not models or actresses and that now Barbie offered girls a realistic and recognisable image to identify with.

Yet for those who know Barbie’s half century and more of backstory, concerns about body type and ethnicity have impacted upon the doll for nearly two decades, overlooked in the general hype over the 2016 changes.

Mattel responded to some consumer criticism and remodelled her body as early as 1997when Barbie’s breasts were reduced in size and her waist thickened. These changes had the effect of straightening her “drag queen” body, which was an inheritance from her German 1950s prototype Lilli: heavy shoulders, slim waist and hips, and those pneumatic, possibly artificial, breasts.

A flexible, slightly rubberised body with wire armature, used for DC comic heroine Barbies and cheerleaders around 2003, also featured broader female hips and smaller breasts, and presented a rather lithe, willowy profile.

A frequent alternative body used by Mattel from the late 1980s onwards for Barbie is a fully jointed, including ankles and wrists, “athletic” Barbie body that features flat feet not impractical heels.

Do the multiple new Barbie body types represent clever marketing rather than a move to a realistic image, given that clothes and shoes cannot be shared across differently sized dolls? Each doll must have her own set, in the manner that Lego designs packs of pieces that do not function outside the context story, or between other themes.

Previously, from 1959 to 1976, Mattel expected girls to have one or two dolls, but buy multiple outfits. Profit in the post-Superstar Barbie era (1977 onwards) has already been driven by the proliferation of different body formats and functions. A thoughtful, inclusive turn as seen in the 2016 new Barbie releases is a variant of this foundational trend.

Simultaneous but varied product has always been an essential part of the Barbie experience. Since 1977, Mattel has designed many novelty Barbie bodies that have different functions and capabilities, some surreal and highly artificial, including flying dolls, dancing dolls, dolls with bodies that light up with LEDs, dolls with mermaid tails instead of legs and even for a short period in 2009 highly controversial tattooed dolls.

Many Barbies are issued within the same year, with different pricepoints and levels of finishing and presentation to appeal to various age groups from pre-school age children to adult collectors. The 2016 new bodies merely extend Barbie’s already split identity.

From the mid-1960s Mattel always provided some options for alternative body and facial images to Barbie through her extended family and friends, who included Skipper and Francie, with different, less voluptuous, body types than Barbie. Midge, Barbie’s best friend, was originally a plain Madge Alsop character with freckles, as a handmaid to the diva’s greatness, but from about 1990 onwards she became an elegant, serene redhead.

While the 2016 line is praised for including multiracial options, there had been African American dolls in the Barbie family since Francie in 1966, followed by Barbie’s “friends” Christie, Brad and Cara in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1981 Barbie herself became available as an African American doll, styled for her launch on Diana Ross in a red lurex evening gown.

The commodification of difference

Erika Nicole Kendall, writing in The Guardian, suggested that the new lines are not about greater sensitivity to consumers criticism but signs of an increasingly desperate development team:

Would Barbie be “diversifying” if it weren’t a last resort to save a dying brand?

Forbes magazine reported in 2014 that Elsa and Frozen toys outsold Barbie.

Barbie had already slipped behind the Bratz dolls in the British and Australian market by the early 2000s and in Australia Bratz dominated within a year of being launched.

Although faltering towards the end of the decade, not the least because of the weight of litigation with Mattel, Bratz showed up Barbie in the new millennium. Their mirroring of outrageous red carpet and rockstar fashion was both more faithful and convincing. The clothing featured better quality fabrics and more well made accessories than were sold with Barbie.

Overall, they captured the increasing importance of media celebrities in circulating and establishing styles, placing Barbie as a cautious follower rather than an innovator.

Most importantly Bratz were a non-hierarchical, multi-ethnic crew, who could not be defined by obvious visual stereotypes, due to their abstract, somewhat anime, styling, offering the dolls to multiple buyers and allowing for many different girls to identify with them.

Lisa Guerrero wrote in Can the Subaltern Shop? The Commodification of Difference in the Bratz:

They have presented a challenge to the Anglocentric version of womanhood found in the arena of toys that has been dominant since the 1959 introduction of Barbie. They have given face to difference and provided images through which young girls of colour might find themselves reflected.

Bratz’s runaway success made Mattel consciously explore alternative styling and address a greater cultural diversity, providing some of the most experimental dolls within the Mattel brand. My Scene dolls’ anime and slightly Japanese styling picked up on the detailed quality of the Bratz clothes and their multiracial social relations.

The Flavas were another answer to Bratz, both exotic and working class, with hip hop styling, a large range of skin tones and some particularly tough male imagery. They were intensely disliked in the United States.

Conservatives and fundamentalists saw them as criminal and delinquent personae inappropriate for child play. African Americans felt the Flava dolls were stereotyping their fashion choices and also imposing an underclass identity on the community.

Overseas in Britain and Europe the Flavas were seen as fascinating ambassadors for American cool.

On the opposite end of the fashion industry scale, the Barbie Basics lines were issued in annual sets from 2010-2014 to be dressed by collectors and amateur designers of doll couture.

In 2010, they included, in the female dolls, at least 12 different complexions, hair styles and body poses, with multi-ethnic Kens as well, all presented with avant garde, fashion forward personae.

Despite the global vote of media confidence, this forgotten back story suggests that The Guardian’s reading of the situation as desperation not innovation may well be right. Do Barbie’s multiple bodies welcome a new era of ethical body inclusiveness or do they shift deckchairs on the Titanic?


A query for Rahul Pandita: Why are you ignoring the existence of a Kashmiri brotherhood?

A query for Rahul Pandita: Why are you ignoring the existence of a Kashmiri brotherhood?
Photo Credit: Rahul Pandita
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Missing the point

Why are you turning a blind eye to the presence of Kashmiri Muslims at the funeral and the fact that they were in the majority (“The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites”)? They may not have performed the last rites, but what matters is that they were standing by the side of the family.

Why are you ignoring the existence of a Kashmiri brotherhood, instead of Pandits and Muslims being divided? The reality is that you have ignored Kashmir and Kashmiriyat long ago and are ignoring any good thing happening around the corner in Kulgam or elsewhere.

I hope you have watched Janki Nath’s wife on television and how she is grateful to the community around. What she said and felt cannot be brushed aside by your comments made from afar. Stop playing a spoilsport by trying to act like a messiah. Learn to encourage certain good things that are happening. Jahangir Khan


Before making any comment on Rahul Pandita’s post-mortem of a story about communal harmony, I would like to seek some more details from his “sources” who fed him the details about the last rites of the deceased.

I strongly believe that his “sources” were also based outside Kashmir like him, and of the same ilk which is driven by “politics of hatred” with self-centered goals, rather than having any concern for the community.

What was the total strength of mourners who participated in the funeral of the deceased Janki Nath? I believe that Pandita will accept that Muslim neighbours outnumbered the Pandits manifold since they were the ones who took care of the elderly couple living among them, even after the mass migration of the minority community. None of you can understand this bond.

Can Pandita please confirm who carried the body to the crematorium, who arranged the firewood and who remained with the widow of the deceased during the mourning period, consoling and sharing her grief and assuring her of their help when needed? Look beyond the technicalities and open your eyes.

Your rebuttal is self-contradictory at times since you are playing to the gallery. Do you know why you get perturbed by the stories of communal harmony emanating from the valley? Because it pricks your balloon containing a distorted message. How many times you have visited the valley after your migration? Much water has passed down the river Jhelum since 1990 and you need to keep pace with the changing times.

It is ironic that you are only picking up things which suit you and your audience. Look beyond yourself to know the real meaning of living. Tariq Sofi


Muslims might not have performed the last rites because they are obviously unaware of the rituals and sermons, but how can the author deny that Muslims accompanied the funeral procession and stayed on till the last rites were performed? Khurshid


Rahul Pandita’s depiction of events is revealing. It exposes the ground reality and the attempts by some to misinform people. Kudos to him. Ashok Handoo


Thank you for telling us the ugly truth and also for the way you told it. CM Naim


I completely agree with Rahul Pandita. Kashmiriyat is a political expression which taunts both Muslims and Hindus of Kashmir. We were never secular because we could not be.

We are two nations, the pomp of media notwithstanding. Both crescent and the swastika are drenched in blood. Farooq Peer


A bitter response that is as bad as the crocodile tears of the PTI stringer. This is the tragedy of Kashmir. Jai Oberoi


I am very saddened after reading the truth as you claim it to be. Whom should I trust? If it was the case of some local/infamous publishing newsbody, then we might have ignored the original story. But an acclaimed paper like The Indian Express carried such a story and patted the shoulders of the so-called Kashmiriyat. Isn’t it shameful? Apart from eroding the trust of a reader, isn’t it a crime in the name of naked journalism and what not?

Many of my friends swooped on this story and they discussed the change and goodwill of the people there. They made made statements such as “See, things are so beautiful now”.

This matter should be taken up in the public domain more fiercely. Adarsh Agarwal