“Ever wonder why your friends’ selfies look so good?” runs the banner across a sponsored advert for Facetune2—one of the world’s most downloaded photo-editing apps and now a permanent fixture in the App Store charts. The answer to their question? Augmented reality. With this latest upgrade, users can tweak (read: totally change) their appearance in real time before getting that selfie.
It’s just one way in which, over the past few years, the worlds of technology and beauty have collided at an accelerating pace. Estimated to reach approximately S$1097.87bn by 2023, the global cosmetics market has been injected with the vigour of Silicon Valley. To add to this, under COVID-19, lockdown and safety concerns over human contact have meant that this kind of disruptive tech has become the norm. At the apex of these industries are innovations in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and smart tools that are set to revolutionise our relationship with beauty and appearance.
In January 2020, CES, a global trade show exhibiting the most pioneering consumer tech “saw a 10 per cent increase in beauty-focused exhibitors” according to its director of research, Lesley Rohrbaugh. These include high-end cosmetic devices that go far beyond the world of jade rollers, micro-needling and even light therapy masks (all of which have gained significant momentum in the past year).
Think truly innovative skincare systems—like Procter & Gamble’s Opté, a handheld inkjet (literally a printer for your skin), which flawlessly colour corrects blemishes and dark spots. Or Korean company Amorepacific’s customisable 3D sheet-mask printer. Or L’Oréal’s Perso, which gathers environmental data and skin diagnostics to blend on-the-spot cosmetics.
A personalised future
The future of beauty technology will be driven by an increasing demand for personalisation and tailor-made formulas. It’s something Clare Varga, head of beauty at trend forecasting agency WGSN, calls ‘custom cosmetechs’. These luxury tools might be beyond the pockets of most customers, but we can see how tech will bring professional-grade treatments to the comfort of our own bathrooms—which feels particularly poignant during lockdown. Nurse Jamie, the Los Angeles brand loved for its nifty gadgets, testifies to this: “You shouldn’t have to worry if you can’t make it to the spa or that you are under quarantine. That’s the power of beauty technology—it’s at your convenience.”
Fuelled by the wellness industry’s tech boom, such as fitness trackers and AI-therapy bots, beauty is leaning further into digital first. Personalised beauty products used to be based on “relatively simplistic surveys, with no way to track whether any suggestions were working,” Victoria Buchanan, senior futures analyst at strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, tells Vogue. Now, though, big data means that technology can create “a personalised feedback loop between products and their effectiveness”.
HiMirror is one such example—a vanity mirror capable of analysing the evolving conditions of your skin while keeping a record of skincare and the efficacy of cosmetics. In other words, your skincare routine is about to level up.
“We’ve seen a huge ‘tech-celeration’ in this area during lockdown,” says Varga. It’s true—La Roche-Posay, Dermalogica and Shiseido are also pushing their own face-mapping features, designed to give accurate skincare readings and product recommendations. It represents a wider shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to personal care, where tech can help us build a closer relationship with ourselves. (Although, admittedly, the results are highly dependent on variables such as lighting and camera quality.)
A race to innovate
As future COVID-19 outbreaks might be a possibility, brands are locked into a race to innovate. “Advancements in AR technologies will play a key role in driving this,” Ukonwa Ojo, senior vice president of MAC Cosmetics, believes. After all, stay-at-home orders mean that we’ve been encouraged to prioritise touch-free shopping and virtually try on products.
Just a few years ago, a virtual try-on feature would have you looking like you’d been made over by a mortician, nowadays the effects can be hyperrealistic. MAC’s YouCam technology claims it can “create photo-realistic simulations that can be tested on any skin tone and adapted to different textures, mattes, sheens, glosses and more than 200 shades of lip or eye colours.”
It’s no wonder, then, that MAC’s try-on has seen “a threefold increase in consumer engagement over the past eight weeks,” or that use of Estée Lauder’s virtual lipstick try-on has increased by a whopping 133 percent. That’s thousands of try-ons with no residue left between testers, meaning realistic AR has the potential to be a game changer for colour cosmetics.
As we adopt an increasingly cautious mindset around touch, this is a trend that could stick far beyond the pandemic. But it’s also something we owe, at least in part, to social media. Because what is the difference, really, between a virtual try-on and a filter?
Beauty’s brave new world
Social media, particularly Instagram and YouTube, has been widely accredited with the democratisation of beauty. The authority once attributed to European fashion houses now lies at the hands of online communities, helmed by the likes of Jeffree Star, Jackie Aina and Nikkie de Jager. In 2018, beauty content generated more than 169 billion views on YouTube. The result is a highly engaged audience, fluent in small-print formulas and who know the difference between a retinol and retinoids.
At the intersection of this is “the phenomenon of wanting to look more beautiful online than in real life,” as Elizabeth Cherian of trends thinktank Wunderman Thompson Intelligence puts it. But what if our digital selves were broadening the very definition of beautiful? Enter Ines Alpha, prolific 3D make-up artist and filter creator. For Alpha, who has worked with Selfridges and Christian Dior: “Beauty is an emotion, it’s very personal.” With little interest in what she calls society’s “Kardashian-esque beauty standards,” her work is futuristic and otherworldly, insisting “it’s OK to be weird and different.” A sentiment apparently shared by Instagram, which last year banned plastic-surgery filters. With the suggestion that 3D make-up could become as ubiquitous as the real thing, there is also the possibility of this shifting how we see ourselves in real life.
In the words of Alpha: “The future of beauty is never ending.” Under lockdown, the concept of the future feels almost unbearably charged. A new dawn in beauty technology will bring us closer to ourselves than ever before, but there is the potential to go beyond who we are, too. As the pandemic propels us to spend more time perfecting algorithms and curating our digital selves, we may well get there sooner than anticipated. Just not quite in the way we had imagined.