Image AI: the new power in your pocket

This isn't just a step up in quality. This is the moment when the image changes wholesale.

When it comes to smartphones, there’s no shortage of hyperbole describing every feature as a revolution, when it barely marks an iteration. And the game of "boy who cried wolf" has left us scarred and cynical, so when something really big is boiling up, we’re likely to miss it.

The frequent mention of artificial intelligence in reference to smartphone technologies of late is case in point. It sounds fancy and right on trend, but what’s the consequence? And what will it mean for all those services and experiences that brands should be thinking about?

The battlefront for smartphone brands is around image. When you think about how people use their phones these days, it’s no surprise that the image is defining the customer’s choice of handset. Anything that leads to a better, clearer, sharper, more flattering, more distinct and impressive shot trades for status, influence and "likes" by the bucketload.

So what is the technology doing that is so different? Huawei, Apple, Google, Samsung and a handful of other brands are all talking about AI tech being applied to their operating systems. But there’s specific pertinence to image-processing and the benefits this has for quality.

For some time, the race across the whole category has been resolution. But while the increased image size gives more information to post-process, it doesn’t offer any advantages in managing all the other aspects of what makes a great image, particularly in handling exposure.

Exposure is one of the main problems for an amateur snapper. One of the things that tends to separate pros from everyday photographers is the ability to manage exposures through great equipment, multiple exposures where necessary and post-production to composite exposures and balance all the elements carefully. It’s therefore a mix of hardware, software and some subjective judgements about what are good or bad exposure levels in all the elements within the frame.

What this new generation of smartphones is doing is increasing resolution as we’ve seen before, but also grabbing more exposure information via new hardware, software and processor power and speed, allowing the tiny smartphone to chomp though and log a wide selection of raw materials to then assimilate into the final composition.

Then AI kicks in to start making best guesses about the components of the shot. Is it a face in the foreground? Is it too dark? So lighten it. (Oh and darken the background too to balance it. Oh, and one more thing, blur out the background so the subject becomes more of a focal point.) It’s an incredibly impressive upgrade if you’re used to a standard smartphone.

So what we’ve seen in this last cycle – and it's a trend that will clearly accelerate – is how the smartphone has evolved from a great, high-resolution camera to featuring the whole post-production suite that improves a picture in an instant. Every shot has its own virtual team living in the phone’s AI, making sense of every element and managing each step of the retouch to give you something much closer to perfection. 

In addition to the camera tech, we’re also starting to see post-production techniques grafted from other users, giving additional scope and expression to otherwise unremarkable pictures. Instagrammers @gypsea_lust and @doyoutravel, for instance, are now sharing their presets for creating the same stunning image effects that helped build their extensive followings, subsequent influence and commercial upside. The gap between aspiration and normality is closing. Fast.

I remember one of our first few user-generated content projects many years ago, collecting user portraits via Orange’s first MMS platform in 2004. Even these crunchy, grubby pictures gave us a flutter of excitement as they rolled in from punters across the country. The image + connectivity + mobility formula was going to give the image a new role in the world. And, 15 years later, that’s clearly the case. 

The importance of the image in our lives is driving frenetic R&D departments around the world to find the sharpest, differentiating edge and, in doing so, is changing the game for all of us. 

And I’ll tell you why.

Before, a division existed. Between amateurs and professionals, between users and the brands to which they aspired, between warts-and-all and the retouched, reshaped, reskinned perfection that was perpetually out of reach.

This new technology democratises unattainable perfection. It goes beyond just capturing reality in high resolution to synthesising a fantasy. The perfect birthday party that didn’t really happen; the even more handsome, slimmer, blemish-free you that no-one ever gets to see.

In a post-Black Mirror world, we all see the shadow side of technologies without too much encouragement. And there are certainly dangers of people living behind their camera’s image instead of the one created IRL.

But having played with UGC many times over the years, I felt like it was only the quality of images that deterred brands from these otherwise valuable exchanges. If the moment has come when our best selves can be captured and presented anywhere a digital signal can reach, maybe it’s high time for a UGC renaissance.

As AI smartphones penetrate the nation, there will be little to divide the "normals" from celebrities, creating a levelling playing field for a new kind of communication game where we all participate in an unrealistic fantasy.

Nicolas Roope is co-founder and creative director of Poke

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