Identity Transfer and the Rise of Virtual Surrealism

November 28, 2016

You just landed in Paris, the euro trip you’ve always dreamed of! After fighting with the street signs and foreign language, you finally exchange keys and smiles with your Airbnb host and drop off your bags.

The first thing you do is visit the Eiffel Tower, which has been tempting you the whole time, peeking through the city’s legendary architecture. As you walk up to it, you see the familiar yet astonishing structure, defying you with its scale. There it is — you’ve seen it in pictures countless times, but this is different.

You’re there. There are no screens between you and The Tower. You can touch it, step on it, and most importantly, prove that you were there. You can’t wait to tell all your friends how marvelous it is. So, you reach inside your pocket and take out your most trusted travel companion: the camera phone.

You point it at The Tower but something is off. It looks just like the pictures you’ve seen online ad naseum. Instead, you turn around, tap the flip icon and capture your smile framed next to The Tower.

This is now your moment. This is now Your Tower.

Selfie Culture

In 2013, James Franco wrote an article for the New York Times that aimed to capture a shift in culture manifested in young teens. I know what you’re thinking. I also have little interest to hear what James Franco has to say. But, I was captivated by something he wrote:

Of course, the self-portrait is an easy target for charges of self-involvement, but, in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing [….] We all have different reasons for posting them, but, in the end, selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are.

Since then, I’ve witnessed how the world has obsessed over the self portrait, cheekily referred to as the “selfie.”

It all started in 2010 with the introduction of the front-facing camera on the iPhone 4. This opened the door to more comfortably and predictably capturing your face—the window to your soul — in the moment, and thus appropriating yourself to the environment around you.

Shortly after, mobile apps like MSQRD started exploring ways to take your identity and augment it. In this case, through face recognition technology that allowed users to place one of many masks over their face while recording a video.

This paved the way for the now popular ‘face filters’ that, instead of covering your face with a whole mask, offered creative ways to place accessories around the scene and gave you simple and consistent cues to affect it — like raising your eyebrows or opening your mouth — which allowed users to express themselves in ways they never had before.

Then, I stumbled upon a video of Jimmy Kimmel showing a silly new technology that allowed him to transfer his voice and facial expressions onto a life-like rendering of different celebrities, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger. And there it was: identity transfer popularized on national television.

Identity Transfer is the appropriation of one’s identity (i.e., your face) into a different environment and thus elevating it beyond just two eyes and a mouth. Selfies are merely today’s expression of it.

It’s easy to dismiss this technology and poke fun at the insane math and woman hours that are behind a seemingly vain and disposable experience. HBO’s Silicon Valley parodied this phenomenon in the show’s Season 3 premiere:

When shopping around for other companies that would allow Richard to keep his pride, he comes across the forward-thinking Flutterbug, who wants Richard to lead engineering on a fantastical new technology that seems poised to change the world. That technology, of course, allows you to look in a camera that puts a fake mustache on your face.

But, it’s important to recognize that Identity Transfer is appealing to many because it washes away the mundanity of their reality and places them as the protagonist of a newly found, unbounded environment, ripe for creativity.

No longer are you beholden by the unremarkable reality that surrounds you. Instead, you can now virtually inhabit any environment and bring along the things that make you you.

Carrying your identity along this metamorphosis brings life and relevance to these environments in an unprecedented way and it revitalizes your place within the (virtual) world around you.

Virtual Reality

In 2016, VR is just starting to see the light of day by bringing new and exciting experiences to a few early-adopting living rooms. So far, we’ve seen dinosaurs walking among us, explored the depths of the sea, and even dared to take step back and witness the planet from a completely new vantage point. These experiences are wonderful, but they’re often insular and private.

Like most new technology, VR will surface to the mainstream once we can provide a social utility that brings us closer together. Social VR, as this is commonly referred to, is barely in its infancy.


Many social experiences in VR attempt to create life-like avatars that resemble other humans in a familiar space.

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The Foo Show is an experimental virtual reality show where you see human-shaped avatars on a stage having a conversation and guiding you through different experiences. They’re able to pull off some neat tricks by playing with environments, but the avatars are far too familiar to be interesting.

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Similarly, Altspace VR lets you hang out with other people in VR while doing a variety of activities together. However, their avatars allow you to inhabit, albeit primitive, bodies in a way that doesn’t quite leave the Uncanny Valley but does show a lot of potential.

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Oculus has chosen to embrace the platform’s constraints and gives you a reality-agnostic avatar that can be customized and brought into different experiences. Users have the option to customize their avatar and add different materials to it, which is the first expression of virtual surrealism as personal identity I’ve seen.

I find this approach very exciting as it has a lot of potential to expand beyond busts and materials. This purposeful disconnection between reality and its virtual counterpart as it relates to your identity can breed liberating amounts of creativity for many people that feel constrained by a social mold into which they don’t fit.

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Facebook’s experiments thus far have focused on a style optimized to resemble your real life identity. A lot of work went into developing a style that is forgiving and approachable to fellow virtual friends, yet looks recognizable to you and your friends. In this video, Michael Booth describes the process and thinking behind the Facebook’s Social VR avatar design.

This makes sense for a social network that bases a lot of its value on connecting people using real identities. More importantly, it’s a necessary step as we strive to demystify VR technology and introduce it to billions of people around the world.

In the future, I think VR will present a unique and exciting opportunity to fulfill the identity transfer itch that’s being scratched by face filters today and augment your identity in ways that are so far impossible to express.

Virtual Surrealism

A few months ago, I was speaking with a colleague who mentioned that his least favorite part of virtual reality is actually that the word ‘reality’ is in the name. He argued that it binds us to think of the medium as a replica of reality, instead of challenging us to create truly innovative experiences aimed to unleash our abstract expressions of self.

Very often we imagine the potential of VR expressed through powerful productivity tools like laying out many floating displays while working or brainstorming with your team in a room with infinite whiteboards. Yet, the most memorable VR experiences I’ve had slightly alter my perception of reality in ways I never thought would be compelling. For example, the game Wilson’s Heart desaturates the colors of the world around you giving the environment an eerie film noir ambiance that is incredibly immersive. Even small details, like the translucency in Space Pirate Trainer as you look through your shield, help introduce new textures from which to look at the world around you.

In the early 1920’s, Surrealism’s aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” Art rebelled against traditional aesthetics, resulting in the creation of unusual and abstract compositions that freed the unconscious mind. I believe we can explore identity in VR with a similar aim using today’s tools and tomorrow’s artists. The use of motion, physics, and textures, combined with your voice, social context, and anachronisms can create powerful expressions of the self, currently waiting to be unleashed.

I’ve been incredibly inspired by a few artists that are pushing the boundaries of how we can express and perceive one another. Here are a few of my favorites:

In The Chemical Brothers’ music video ‘Wide Open', Dom & Nic explore a surprisingly captivating motion capture technique where the main character slowly reveals a body made of a synthetic, see-through material that is then anthropomorphized through the masterful dance of Sonoya Mizuno.

Method Studio’s 2016 AICP reel is a jaw-dropping exploration of textures and body movement that oozes personality without the need for face or eye tracking.

This approach is explored in depth by the Germany-based 3D artist Antoni Tudisco, who fills Instagram with his prolific creations of surreal, hyper-expressive avatars.

Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing a whole new you. A million little details react to your body movement, all animating as you speak, alive in their own way!

I suspect that today’s Selfie Culture will find itself at home tomorrow, in a world where everything that defines who we are is only limited by imagination, free from natural constraints. I am excited to see this future being shaped by the artists and technologists who continue to explore the boundaries of creativity.

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