Your skin acts as a physical interface between you and your environment. It is an interface which has, historically, been subject to the genetic lottery – undesigned, unchangeable, yet undeniably (and devastatingly) critical to our social existence. As the most immediate and dominating feature of our visual appearance, have we not all wondered about the possibility of inhabiting someone else’s skin?
Perhaps the answer to this lies in the significance of the word ‘interface’ – a word that seems to have an intrinsic relationship to the digital realm. User-interface, web-interface, software- interface... Could it be that this parallel is actually at the heart of the future of ‘skin’? That our skin may just become another digital interface that we can simply ‘design’? This outlandish prospect is now at our (simulated) fingertips.
Due to an increased immersion in social media, a window has opened to an existence where we are liberated from our brick-and-mortar reality, and the permanence of our own physical appearance. We can now socially interact with relative authenticity but under the guise of a carefully curated digital self. Naturally, this cultural development has prompted technological advancements in multiple platforms which give us the capacity to alter our visual appearance. From photo-editing applications to the creation of personal digital avatars, we are no longer limited by the genetic lottery, but by our very own imagination.
So how will this cultural and technological evolution influence our concept of ‘beauty’? On one hand, it appears that visual homogenisation is inevitable. We are the product of a society which is infatuated with a very specific definition of physical beauty, and the technology released today not only supports, but encourages, this ideal. Various digital applications now provide tools which allow us to easily alter our visual appearance, including the smoothing of wrinkles, the removal of blemishes or the widening of eyes, to name a few... These tools allow us to project an idealised version of ourselves into the digital realm, whilst retaining an element of authenticity from our physical reality.
On the other hand, with the creation of personal digital avatars, we will witness the development of an artistic language which is liberated entirely from physical restriction. Unlike cosmetic surgery or tattooing, we will have the ability to enhance our digital-visual appearance without regard to biological limitations, physical permanence or financial capacity. These digital enhancements will allow us to graphically alter our skin and flesh in any way imaginable, from the ‘real’ (gender flexibility, changes in body proportions, re-shaping of facial features etc) to the ‘surreal’ (an eye in the centre of the forehead, human skin as fish scales, additional limbs etc).
One perpetuates commercial standards of beauty, where the demand of the general consumer will inevitably influence technological developments, and as a consequence, will set the standard of visual representation. As a culture already so deeply ingrained in concepts of commercialised beauty, it is hard to imagine why everyone will not want to digitally represent themselves as young, fit and attractive?
The second prospect however, has the potential to establish an entirely new artistic language of visual representation – one that is free of the social discriminations established in centuries of physical existence and interaction. How can we predict that one day we will not consider that having purple skin, pink hair and seven arms will be the epitome of perceived beauty? Our time spent interacting socially in the digital realm is increasing every year, so it is utterly inevitable that our desire to digitally present ourselves in a truly authentic way will begin to establish an entirely unique and unimagined form of visual representation.
However, there is one pivotal point dictating the success of these social musings and predictions – technology. What can we expect from the technology of the future? How exactly does this translate to our digital-social experience?
Imagine: A 75-year-old woman sits in her living room in London. She holds the phone directly in front of her face. What looks back at her is a beautiful, young digital avatar. However, she does not look ‘digital’ at all... You can see the detail of her pores, and the illusion of sweat on her skin. You can see the simulated hair fall in front of her forehead, and the light glint in her eye. When the elderly woman looks left, the avatar looks left. When the elderly woman looks right, her avatar looks right. When she smiles, the avatar smiles revealing small dimples in her cheeks, and a slight gap between her two front teeth. The avatar is sitting on the beach, and the sun is shining through her stray hairs, and the cartilage in her left ear glows a little. When the elderly woman speaks, her avatar speaks, and an audio simulation reveals a soft, youthful voice, with a slight Spanish accent. The elderly woman records a video and uploads it directly to her online profile.
This is the quality of simulation we can begin to expect from our online personas. Microscopic details in pore definition, dynamic wrinkling, organic expression, natural muscle movements and unique features will become the standard of our digital-selves. These simulations will be so believable, and so realistic, they will appear indistinguishable from real life.
However, the true potential of such technology is not necessarily only in the ability to simulate real life, but in our ability to supersede real-life. To develop an existence beyond reality, beyond biology and beyond the social boundaries of our physical existence.
This naturally poses the question: If our curated digital-selves become paramount to our existence, will our physical-selves ever be able to catch up?
Hermione Flynn is a performance artist working predominantly in the digital realm with 3D avatar and digital-double, Em. Flynn is also the founder and managing director of specialist 3D character studio, Mimic Productions, and 3D creative agency, Synthetic.