At least they have Disney characters

One of Samsung’s messages with the new Galaxy S9 is that it’s “Built for the Way We Communicate Today.” And while that’s a laudable goal, one of the key features behind that message — AR Emoji — doesn’t feel like it connects with the way anyone communicates now, or will want to in the future. At least I hope not.

AR Emoji will widely be seen as a response to Animoji, the new iPhone X emoji that use face-scanning technology to convert facial movement into animated animals that you can send as messages. But the idea and implementation is actually very different. The Galaxy S9 relies entirely on conventional photos from the selfie camera rather than Apple’s complex 3D sensor array, yet attempts to produce something more ambitious and fraught with potential disaster: realistic, yet cartoonish, depictions of your own face.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results are mixed.

Setting up AR Emoji is simple. You only need to take a single picture of yourself smiling with your mouth closed, and the Galaxy S9 does the rest. From that picture it uses machine learning to create an animated 3D model of your face, which you can customize with different hairstyles, clothes, and so on. It’s more like Bitmoji than Animoji — the idea is to create an avatar of yourself. The clips can be sent as GIFs or PNGs, too, which makes them a lot easier to share than Animoji.

Now look, I’m not the sort of person that particularly enjoys looking at pictures of themselves. But even with that caveat, i was pretty unsettled by the results here. Take a look for yourself:

My colleague Vlad said my AR Emoji looks like 68-year-old Arsenal FC manager Arsene Wenger. I thought about this, and decided it looks like Wenger would if I tried to make him in the create-a-character mode of a PlayStation 2 wrestling game.

Vlad’s AR Emoji, for the record, looked like this:

Vlad tells me this photo “accurately represents his attitude to these emoji.”

We’ll have to spend more time with the Galaxy S9 to deliver the final verdict on AR Emoji, and of course the phone’s overall success isn’t going to hinge on them. But from our brief testing, they’re a plane crash right into the depths of the Uncanny Valley. They’re not abstract enough to be cute, yet not realistic enough to be authentic.

Samsung may have been a little too ambitious on a technical level, but even then I’m not sure the idea is sound. There’s a reason why Snapchat filters tend to turn you into a bear or a pokémon rather than yourself. And to that end, Samsung has actually announced that various Disney characters will also be available as AR Emoji — which is a much better idea, but one that brings us right back to Animoji.

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