What’s the Galaxy S9’s least loved feature? That’s easy: AR Emoji, the Samsung exclusive that whips up 3D avatars. It’s a pretty transparent imitation of the iPhone X’s 3D Animoji characters — fox, monkey, swirl-capped turd — but with one major, absolutely crucial difference: You.
While, yes, you can become a character like Donald Duck, you can also make Samsung’s 3D figures look like you, because they’re made from a selfie that the Galaxy S9 or Galaxy S9 Plus took of your face.
That was the idea, anyway. In reality, AR Emoji’s creepy human avatars look very little like the real people they try to represent.
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None of the over-20 CNET staffers who made an AR Emoji recognized themselves in their avatar. Our 3D selves had plasticky faces that grimaced every time we tried to smile, developed a horrible eye twitch and lacked enough customization options to give me curly hair or clothes I’d actually wear. AR Emoji even gave a short-haired editor a man bun for literally no reason at all.
My colleague Scott Stein and former Techcrunch writer Darrel Etherington, meanwhile, would never be mistaken for twins. But their AR Emoji would have them separated at birth:
In theory, AR Emoji lets you customize everything from hair to skin tone. But in reality, those shades you’re offered fail to represent real life variation, and the default image AR Emoji generates is often disappointing:
How could Samsung, the world’s largest supplier of smartphones, have gone so wrong? Turns out, Samsung didn’t make AR Emoji itself. It snapped up the license to bring these plasticky, unsettling faces to life from two-year-old startup called Loom.ai. That company’s Hollywood-heavy pedigree includes resumes that read like a who’s-who of CG animation: Lucasfilm, Dreamworks, Disney Research. And its CTO and principal engineer are each Oscar-winners who won SciTech Academy Awards for separate achievements in computer animation.
So how did people who worked on the tech that controversially brought this major Star Wars: Rogue One character back to life create such a lackluster flop in AR Emoji?
Because making a fast, accurate avatar from your phone’s selfie camera is really hard.
AR Emoji creation is fast. Maybe too fast
When and if you set up your AR Emoji, the Galaxy S9 phone will create your 3D avatar in a matter of seconds. The front-facing camera takes a photo of your face and analyzes that photo to approximate what your features really look like.
People’s attention span is low. People lose it after 5 seconds.
Kiran Bhat, Loom.ai co-founder and CTO
“In the movies, [making a 3D avatar is] a multimillion dollar effort with lots of specialized hardware,” said Kiran Bhat, Loom.ai’s co-founder and CTO.
He knows all too well the painstaking and time-consuming work that goes into Hollywood-level motion capture from his time at Lucasfilm.
These avatars of Loom.ai’s founders use the same backbone as Samsung’s AR Emoji, but were rendered on a computer instead of on a phone.
Expensive cameras and tracking equipment are used to scan actors’ body movements and even specific facial expressions, which are then mapped on to computer-generated characters such as the Incredible Hulk (The Avengers), Gollum (the Lord of the Rings movies), Caesar (the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy) or Leader Snoke (The Last Jedi). (In fact, three of those four characters are brought to life by the same actor: Andy Serkis.)
But AR Emoji was designed to be the ultimate express version of the Hollywood process. No day-long motion capture shoot, no green