Virtual makeovers are better than ever

Virtual makeovers are better than ever

Agustina Sartori might as well be a chameleon. Her lips keep changing color, from matte red to glossy cherry to shimmering peach.

Her eyes change, too: her eyelashes thicken, and her eyelids turn glittery silver, then plum, then orange. Suddenly, her eyebrows thicken.

We are watching a live view of her transformation on her iPhone screen, where she looks ready for a fun night out. Sitting next to me in real life, however, her makeup is much more subtle.

It’s not magic; Sartori is playing with a live virtual-makeover feature in cosmetics retailer Ulta Beauty’s iPhone app. It uses augmented reality and a phone’s front-facing camera to test thousands of shades and textures of lipstick, eyeshadow, and other cosmetics by applying them instantly to your face.

Sartori is the founder of GlamST, a startup that Ulta Beauty bought late last year. Now the director of augmented reality innovation at Ulta, her technology helps power the company’s smartphone apps and is a striking example of how far augmented-reality makeup has come.

A shakeup for the makeup world

Augmented reality, or AR, a tech that overlays virtual images on live video of the real world, has been available in a handful of mobile apps for years — like kids games or an IKEA app that lets you rearrange virtual furniture in your real home. But with the exception of, say, Pokémon Go, it has largely failed to catch on with consumers.

Virtual makeup, one of the first triumphs of the technology, is helping AR go mainstream and sell real-world products, too.

AR has become eerily accurate enough that major beauty companies including Ulta Beauty, Wannaby, a startup based in Minsk, Belarus, that is working on ways to try on three-dimensional products like shoes.

Wannaby, which already offers an app for checking out different shades of nail polish, recently released an early version of an iPhone app called Wanna Kicks. It lets you use the iPhone’s rear-facing camera to see how sneakers from companies such as Nike, New Balance, and Adidas look on your feet. If you like what you see, there’s a link in the app to buy the shoes online.

The tech has a long way to go. The foot-tracking is still finicky — it doesn’t work well when you move your foot — and there were fewer than a dozen 3-D shoe models (each in various patterns) in the app in mid-February.

It does give a sense for what the future could look like as smartphones and the technology underpinning augmented reality continue to improve.

Beauty companies are also hoping to use AR to make virtual makeovers even more realistic looking. They’re working on tricky tasks like figuring out how to render glitter correctly, and making extreme hair-color changes look normal.

They’re also considering how to personalize product suggestions, in hopes of getting you to try virtually and then buy even more. But this may be even harder than showing you lipstick or sneakers that appear to be on your feet.

When it comes to understanding what users care about, Aarabi said, “That remains a challenge.”