Saturday, September 18, 2010

Replacing Fashion Models With Avatars

In electronic media, it is getting harder and harder to separate reality and fantasy. This overlap is about to hit fashion photography in a big way.

For a few years, clothing catalogs have had the options of showing actual photographs of people wearing clothing items and using video-game technology to generate images that resemble photographs. Video-game technology has improved and avatars look more and more like people, often like specific people. It is now possible to take a two-dimensional photograph and convert it to a three-dimensional scene, and then the person in the photograph can be modified or replaced with an avatar. This makes it possible to show an actual photograph of clothing, but with an digitally generated avatar wearing the clothing.

And the reason to do this is not necessarily to create a fantasy image. A more prosaic reason to use 3-D technology to touch up fashion photographs is to smooth over skin blemishes or flaws. The model can have digitally perfect skin, and this includes the advantage of better image compression, especially in the common JPEG file format used for nearly all photographs online. This makes such a large difference in the quality of JPEG compression that within a few years, skin smoothing and body hair deletion will surely become standard options in JPEG compression programs used for photos of people. And then, what is a “true” image when image compression and 3-D imaging overlap to that extent?

At this point, I can still tell which models have merely been touched up and which have been replaced with avatars. At least I think I can. Within two years, though, no one will be able to pick out the difference. Does the picture show a model, a mathematically streamlined image of a model, a model replaced with an avatar of the model, a model replaced with a completely different avatar, a mannequin replaced with an avatar, a digitally generated image, or something in between? You won’t be able to tell, at least not at a glance. Even the person in a photo won’t be able to tell how much the image was changed.

Someday there may be a scandal in which we find out that a famous model didn’t personally appear in the photo-quality images of clothing seen in a magazine or catalog. We may have to be careful of catalogs that use imaging software to make their fabrics look better than they actually are.

And beyond that, at some point, photographs will lose their reality value. Barely a generation ago, if you saw something in a photograph, it implied that the scene really happened, in a way that a sketch or verbal description would not. This is changing. Already, photographs are not admissible as evidence in court unless someone can testify as to how the photographs came about. That testimony will become more important. And already, you cannot always tell the photos from the avatars in the small, 48-pixel photos that may accompany people’s online comments. Imagine how things will change when you cannot tell reality from fantasy in any of a person’s photos online, or when avatars can have vacation slideshows that look every bit as real as your own. When photographic images can be generated on a whim, will they become more important in conveying ideas online, or will they start to disappear?