We met Creative Technologist Ommy Akhe within the virtual space and talked about the shapeshifting abilities of AR filter, beauty and appearance in the digital space, and how augmented reality is interacting with one’s (self-)image

The world is our playground seems like a quite literal quotation when we visualize the things, we have in our minds and make them a reality. At the same time, we are living at a time when technology and real life increasingly intertwine, which enables us to buy into things temporarily – while changing some settings on our phone screens. The technology at the heart of it is called augmented reality and is an extension of reality based on digital content. And while a lot of people still see the tech industry as male-dominated, there are creative technologists such as Ommy Akhe, who create temporary escapism and entertainment through AR lenses and filters, that can be used throughout the day.

Whereas a lot of people have a very linear tech background, Ommy happened to be in her field by accident, which turned into her newfound love for augmented reality. The London-based artist started as an ethical hacker and is now known for her conceptually AR filter, that question the perception of appearance, fashion, and beauty. Her specialty is the precise angle that is challenging the boundaries and fears within the power (or lack of) control while using AR filters as an extension of reality. Since Instagram allowed everyone to upload a filter, they unlocked a powerful tool for freedom of expression. Now watch this drive and get a deep dive into the spheres of Ommy’s world and the new technology, that will shape our future and shift the (internet) culture.

What’s your profession?

I call myself a creative technologist as the role becomes anything you need it to be.


What is ethical hacking, and how does someone with this profession end up doing something beauty-related?

Ethical hacking is the means of testing the robust aspects of a computer system or a network. The aim is to find the vulnerabilities and mitigate, patch, or fix them to prevent the chance of a harmful or malicious attack happening in the future. Essentially preventative hacking prevents terrible things from happening. The transition to AR was a complete accident. I was about to start my master’s degree, and the plan was to create an AR experience for my dissertation whilst learning a new tool. At this time, AR development became more accessible for developers. That’s when I started to create, publish and take on clients.


Was your ethical hacking background helpful for what you’re doing now?

AR development was somewhat similar to my previous work. Although coding is not imperative for being able to build effects or lenses, it helped me in being able to decompose more extensive problems and utilise computational thinking.


You described your work as “immersive digital experiences with lasting impacts” – can you elaborate further?

AR is about providing the user with an environment where they are in control and can modify things based on what they want to do. The element of choice is paramount for me – especially when it comes to beauty. For example, if I develop beauty effects, it’s crucial to add options, so people can choose what’s ideal for them, rather than me subconsciously enforcing a beauty ideal onto them. When somebody opens an AR lens, I don’t want to say, “I think you should look like this”. Instead, I want to give options to explore and tools to experiment with. I am creating almost mini computer programs to enable people’s storytelling or their form of (temporary) self-expression.


What excites you about AR?

AR glasses. When I started dabbling with AR development, I fell in love with the visual aspect. But it seemed like there was a bigger picture or something to look forward to. There was a reason why tech companies started to encourage creatives and developers to familiarise themselves with AR, whether AR as a concept, interaction with AR or building experiences. Snapchat especially is very prominent and active in that area. Developing AR lenses is almost like building your own ideal, beautiful world. The future of wearing AR glasses every day is the thing that excites me the most: what is the world going to look like? How will you interact with something, and what types of experiences can I build now that will serve me well into the future?


And how do you connect with your audience?

The social aspect of AR is incomparable as it allows me to build upon people’s feedback and see their reactions directly. I have a lens called Supersede, which turns things holographic. Initially, I intended it to be a fashion lens, but the calligraphy community picked it up because it turns black handwriting into Holographic writing. I received hundreds of videos of people just writing every day – totally unexpected! Initially, I was shocked, thinking that’s not what I designed it for. The users didn’t understand the things that appeared intuitive to me because I was building them – looking at the same lens every day. But as the effect grew and more people started to use it, I valued the aspect of the community. Supersede was a masterclass in understanding the power of actionable user feedback and how to tailor things to suit an audience. I had to ask myself: When somebody opens it for the first time, how easy is it for them to grasp the concept?


When people think about technology, many of them are afraid of the ‘endless’ possibilities. In an interview, you said AR means freedom for you. Can you elaborate on this for me?

To me, augmented reality is about complementing your life. To make things slightly more manageable in terms of optimization, productivity, and organization. AR is like the accumulation or the purest form of having an accessible and fun technology experience. The whole point of it is to overlay valuable things into your reality. You’re not in an enclosed, completely immersive space. You’re able to interact with the world and others in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive or obstructive to what you’re doing.


AR seems like a technology where everything is possible, and some might believe that this technology got powers without boundaries. I’d like to hear your opinion about that.

It’s interesting because we have things like file size limits from a developer’s point of view. These are put in place to ensure fast loading speeds of experiences and compatibility with as many devices as possible. I’ve found that the constraints that we have force us to be creative in new ways. It would be great to put an entire film inside an AR experience, but because I can’t, I must think about how I can adapt what I build similarly. But we are relatively new in this technology field, so adoption and getting people to engage with AR is the most important thing.


It seems like anyone can become an AR artist in their free time. Is this true?

I started experimenting in my free time, and that’s how many AR artists began – out of curiosity or interest. But it has become more and more commonplace. A great thing about AR development, especially on tools like Lens Studio, is that you don’t need to code to build experiences. It is straightforward to start and experiment with the tools. Also, the visual feedback is very encouraging. You can see any change immediately: what impact it has and what it looks like.


You said that you design to meet the demand – what is the demand?

It depends. I think the more we create; the more people use AR. Sometimes people come with specific requests for something that I find super fun. Now I try to build for people as opposed to making it solely for myself. Thereby, I can see them interact and better myself and my ways of execution based on their feedback. In that sense, AR is all about creating experiences that people are excited to share. There weren’t many examples of how AR technology could be used or applied within the fashion and beauty industry when I started. I like to experiment in that gap because it is exciting to emphasize what the future can look like.


How exactly can the beauty industry profit from AR?

The most obvious way to profit would be through an AR try-on. Many brands experiment with it, especially in the beauty industry. Trying on lipstick shades is one of the most common examples: It’s an easy and highly beneficial way to understand whether something suits you and if you would like to buy it. But there is also the aspect of the impermanence of beauty. Before changing my hair colour, I try it in AR – the same thing with make-up. I can’t apply eyeliner skilfully, but If I want to see what it looks like, I’ll try it. People can test things out of curiosity because AR is impermanent and immediate. You don’t have to wait for somebody to do something or go to a salon, because it is instant. You take a picture and can see the result.


Why do you think people are so obsessed with changing their appearance online?

I think it’s about self-expression and feeling comfortable in your own skin. You can test anything with AR, especially regarding physical appearance. And if you don’t like it, you can delete it or subscribe to things you are interested in.


Your AR filters rethink the user’s appearance and try to address some underlying issues – why did you choose this angle?

AR is about creating an experience that supports a story. I don’t know what that story is, I am just building the effects of the lens, and the story develops itself as people use it. Then I modify the lens to help support those stories and make the experience easier and accessible.


Is AR superficial or a tool to have a look under the surface?

I think it can be both. It depends on the setting in which somebody wants to use it at a specific point in time. I feel superficial things often get a bad reputation, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting an environment to be beautiful.


Let’s talk about the lasting impacts of AR beauty filters. Do you think they can lead to unhealthy behaviour and depression due to unrealistic ideas of beauty?

As developers, it’s important to have parameters for things like this. It’s not right to reinforce beauty ideals – unconsciously or not.  AR should enhance the user environment and make sure they share the stories they try to tell. It allows people to experiment with their appearance without making life-changing permanent real-life modifications – which can have ramifications and impacts. Playing around with appearance in a less permanent way is a real benefit of the technology.


Do you think AR beauty filters are somehow related to having a permanent self-optimization like plastic surgery?

It’s just the general trajectory of beauty. As things become more immediate and accessible to people, they can do more permanent things. I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is a direct causation of the other. Maybe there is a correlation. But once again, those are all just forms of self-expression. AR experiences enable people to be their most authentic selves. Something that is very difficult to comment on as an outsider who also does modifications to themselves, which other people may find odd.


Since there are possibilities to change the own appearance with just one phone click, how can people find their identity?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a need to find and know yourself explicitly. As life goes on, you start to understand yourself better. That comes through learned experiences and trying things. So, AR as a tool is robust and powerful, enabling people to experiment. And if that encourages them to experiment more with other elements in their life, whether it be another environment, learning a new hobby or skills, that’s a good thing. AR is a promising technology that helps people understand themselves better.


A lot is happening right now with the metaverse and everything. What do you think about the future of the beauty industry?

My focus is on the future and how I think people will interact there. I try to iterate rapidly to refine ideas and means of interaction. AR in beauty is an exciting phenomenon, and I can’t wait to see how it develops and how the beauty industry will adapt. It’s an exciting space where you can defy the rules of physics and convention. In the end, beauty is chemistry: pigments and colours in a lab. So, the question is: how can the rules of physics and chemistry be subverted using the aid of technology?


What do you think about the beauty of diversity?

It depends on what element of diversity you are looking at. There is always room for more diversity and representation in the developer community. I would say that AR is interesting and unique because there are many more female creators and developers than in other tech industries. At least that’s what I found, coming from security. In terms of diversity, technology can only be as diverse as the community that creates it. Being adaptive is the real power of using technology.


That’s a nice way to put it. So, where do you find beauty and inspiration for that?

I find it everywhere. I am an introverted programmer, who doesn’t often venture out, but being out in the real world puts things in perspective: meeting people, observing styles and trends, and having conversations. There’s something to learn for everyone, and being outside and interacting with people has been a real inspiration. Also, fashion and beauty in general: I work a lot with bags because I like transferring their elements to AR. Sometimes, I see a garment and then my idea of how I would customize it is the thing that fuels an AR experience or a lens.


Anything else you want to share?

Experimentation is fundamental – that can be personal experimentation or technological experimentation. But the great thing about being in technology or being immersed in technology is that it is impermanent and something you can delete. If you are just curious about something, try it in AR. The worst thing that can happen is it takes up a couple of megabytes in your computer, which you can simply delete.



Text  Fatima Njoya

Artist  Ommy Akhe

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