Augmented Reality Is Now Mainstream on Instagram

Every week since the beginning of the pandemic, Mitsuko Ono—a 31-year-old augmented-reality designer in Manila—has been releasing zany new Instagram filters. There’s “BLINK!,” which replaces a user’s eyelashes with a row of tiny fingers, and “Baby Face,” which makes a baby’s arms and legs sprout out of the user’s head. On the strength of these oddities, she’s become a widely known member of the platform’s growing filters-and-effects community.

“I enjoy seeing people of all ages, from different parts of the world, play around [with] my work,” Ono told me in an email. “It inspires me to create more, knowing I can bring happiness to people in spite of the situation we are all in.”

Where once fashion bloggers and travel influencers were racking up thousands of new followers a day, people such as Ono are Instagram’s latest stars. During the pandemic, they’re also some of the only people on the platform who can create anything worth sharing.

These filters are so popular that the big hits have been used tens of millions of times in a matter of weeks. According to Instagram, the most popular effect right now is “Revolution,” which duplicates the user over and over in diagonal rows stretching back into the distance—a crisply arranged army of one. Also near the top is an effect called “AAAHHHHHHH!!!,” which puts the user’s face on a fish that’s flying around the world, then speeds up an evolutionary process until the fish becomes a human.

David O’Reilly, its creator, is best known for a filter called “It’s Always You,” which creates the illusion of an AR you holding a phone and videochatting with real-life you at the same time, then moves on to even trippier scenarios—your face as a continent, your face as the world. More than 30 million people have posted videos of themselves using it, which have collectively been watched more than 700 million times, he told me. He recently made a supercut featuring split-second clips from as many of the videos as he could, including one by the comedian Nick Kroll.

The pandemic seems to be accelerating the use of AR, but the technology’s rise has been several years in the making. In 2016, AR had its first truly global, mainstream moment with Pokemon Go, an app that turned the entire world into a game and has been downloaded more than a billion times. Since then, Instagram and Snapchat have released tools that allow people to create their own effects without requiring any coding experience. “It’s so easy that probably anybody [age] 12 and above can actually make their own filter,” Maya Georgieva, the director of the XReality Center at the New School, told me.

During lockdown, she’s seen filters getting both wilder and even more popular, because “you can transform instantly,” she said. AR is so mainstream now, Georgieva added, that it’s even showing up in schools and workplaces. Teachers might still raise an eyebrow at a weird Zoom background that covers a student’s entire face, but they probably accept at this point that some kids are going to call in with a background from Bikini Bottom. Even one of your colleagues might.  

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