We spoke to design house Seymourpowell to find out what would happen if the Élever device came into existence
What if there was a product that allows you to download your favourite make-up look from Instagram and print it onto your face, without having to buy any new products or learn how to use them? This is a question that Mariel Brown and Rob Cooper, Director of Futures and Designer at UK based design studio Seymourpowell have been asking themselves, and has formed the basis of their new creative project: the Élever device. Framed as part of their research into the future of beauty, and inspired by the influence of social media on global beauty trends and consumer desire for immediacy, the duo has created a concept for a make-up printer that combines 3D fabrication, facial recognition technology and AI-power image analysis to replicate beauty looks from the internet. Bridging the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, the way we consume online beauty culture and then apply it in real life, the device is all about translating influence into a material thing, one that could easily be monetised to great success. But at what cost? How will the rise of AI intelligence impact human creativity? How will the device challenge notions of authorship? What does this mean for the role of a make-up artist? And most worryingly, how will the ability to perfectly replicate content you’ve found online affect notions of individuality and identity? We caught up with the team to find out more.
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and what you do at Seymourpowell.
Mariel Brown: I have a background in Product Design, I did an MA at the Royal College of Art London, where we questioned the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies.I like asking questions such as; How are new technologies changing our behaviours? Where might they take us next and is that somewhere we want to go? I lead the Foresight team at the design and innovation company, Seymourpowell. We work with global brands such as Samsung, Panasonic, LG, Ford, Sony, Unilever, PepsiCo and Diageo - helping them to create new product experiences ranging from space ships to sex toys. The Foresight team fuels our creative work with a discipline known as ‘design strategy’, giving inspiration and accuracy to the innovation process.
Rob Cooper: Studying both Graphic and Product Design at Central Saint Martins has allowed me to see design as both a problem-solving tool and a means of communication. As a Seymourpowell designer I create a broad range of things from products and packaging to user experiences and brand strategies for an equally broad range of clients.
What exactly is the Élever device?
Rob Cooper: Élever is a device that explores the possibility of digitally printing straight on to the face, making it possible to immediately reproduce make-up looks found in online beauty content.
What would be its benefits?
Mariel Brown: The primary benefit of Élever is immediacy; you can see a look you’d like to try online and re-create it instantly. We created the concept with the hope of promoting debate on the ways in which technology could create efficiencies between the physical and virtual worlds to allow greater spontaneity.
Where did the idea come from?
Mariel Brown: The concept draws on insights gathered while working with beauty influencers and experts from London, LA, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Seoul. Throughout our research, we saw that social media has accelerated the speed at which beauty trends spread globally. This new velocity is fuelling a consumer desire for immediacy. We witnessed users harvesting social media for inspiration as the first step in their make-up regime. One respondent even searched the hashtags of the event he was heading to that night, as part of his getting ready ritual, with the intent of optimising his chances of creating impact; effectively responding to style trends in real-time. This growing consumer desire for immediacy is currently frustrated by the realities of the physical world. Traditional product development cycles, existing supply chain restrictions and retail channel norms are fated to run at a much slower rate than the online world of beauty culture. We wanted to create a concept that would challenge these established systems to become more agile.
What do you see as its potential challenges
Mariel Brown: While the technology needed to comprehend and analyse social media content feels within reach, applying that image onto the human face with the accuracy and dexterity of a professional make-up artist feels further afield. The purposefully monotonous mechanical movements of Élever highlight the challenge faced by digital technology when attempting to manipulate the unpredictable and organic physical world.
Do you see the device or something similar being integrated into our daily lives in the future? Or will price points keep it as being for the preserve of the few?
Rob Cooper: As with all emerging technology the commercial introduction of such a product would conform to a general trajectory, from initial introduction that would appeal to a few early adopters - probably at a prohibitively high price – through to mass adoption along with the decreasing price as economies of scale and technological developments such as Moore's law take effect.
By continually replicating looks from the internet, will experimentation and creativity be stifled?
Mariel Brown: Our research indicated that the future beauty consumer will be looking to go both fast and slow depending on their schedule. On a hectic morning, they might opt for the automated convenience of smart tools such as Élever whilst on a relaxed evening they may want to take greater control of their identity and enjoy the artistry of creating a new look themselves. There will always be creators and consumers. This concept presents an opportunity to explore different mindsets. We hope it will encourage discussion on human creativity and machine intelligence. We are only starting to understand the creative potential of algorithms. Will AI expand human creativity or restrict it? The answer is most likely both. Traditional social media has certainly delivered a dichotomy of symptoms. On the one hand, we can see a wonderful new diverse expression of beauty emerging, whilst on the other, we can witness it encouraging homogenisation.
How do you think the make-up artists would benefit from a device like this? Or would they suffer? Would we still need makeup artists?
Rob Cooper: A platform such Élever could allow make-up artists, cosmetics brands and beauty influencers to sell make-up looks online, and the social media channels on which their images are accessed would become e-commerce platforms or new platforms could be created specifically. Alternatively, as with the digitisation of any art form will the plagiarism of professional make-up artist work become prevalent? Élever presents exciting opportunities for the future of the beauty industry itself as brands, influencers, make-up artists and magazines could seek to monetise their make-up looks and set up new brand and product partnerships centred around the device.
Why do you think we want to look like influencers on social media?
Mariel Brown: Following trends gives people a sense of social belonging and cachet. What is particularly interesting currently however, is that people are learning to manipulate and capitalise on a changeable identity; they are tailoring their appearance to specific social situations to gain an advantage.
If we’re all picking from a similar catalogue of looks, won’t we all look the same?
Rob Cooper: Élever enables consumers to become the perfect mirror image of the content they find on social media, and certainly provokes debate around homogenisation and originality.
Beauty has become part of the cultural conversation in a way its never before, why do you think this is?
Mariel Brown: Beauty is intrinsically linked to the concept of identity. We are moving through a period of enormous social upheaval and as a result, beauty is being used as a powerful medium for activism. I’m excited to see how these cultural conversations will continue as there is certainly more to do to change society for the better globally. Advancing technology such as augmented reality offers us an incredible opportunity to free ourselves from the restrictions of our physicality. My hope is that beauty influencers will harness new technology to subvert and widen the bandwidth of what is considered to be beautiful.
Why is beauty imagery so popular online? What is it about beauty imagery that speaks to our generation?
Mariel Brown: The answer to this lies in neuroscience. The human mind can never get enough beauty. In fact, recent studies have shown that beautiful faces trigger the pleasure receptors in our brains associated with addiction. With the rapid growth of social media, we have limitless access to content that gives us endless pleasure, therefore we are consuming it at an extraordinary rate.
How has technology and social media shaped our perception of beauty? How has it dismantled historical beauty ideals? How has created new ones?
Rob Cooper: Social media and technology have reshaped our perception of beauty by democratising the images we are exposed to, moving from a visual landscape dominated by the highly manipulated images created by a select few global brands to an increasingly horizontal visual landscape - while still highly curated - far more diverse and representative. As the relationship between beauty and technology evolves, especially the merging of the digital and physical worlds, the beauty industry faces many possible futures. While digital technology may enable a richer more diverse and vibrant beauty culture driven by instantaneous sharing and niche points of influence, technology also has the ability to homogenise, settling at a generic global middle ground.
What is the future of beauty?
Mariel Brown: The future of beauty is an intriguing story of polarity. It’s a tale of losses and gains. On the one hand, we can see that climate change will have a profound impact on the beauty sector. Here is where we see the narrative of losses emerging. We will have to innovate within tight restrictions and find ways to deliver more with less. Conversely, at the same time, we can witness advancing technology offering us gains. This driver of change suggests a time of plenty, even excess.