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I hate animoji, but even I can see their extraordinary potential

I hate animoji, but even I can see their extraordinary potential


The iPhone X’s most frivolous feature could turn out to be transformative

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Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel engaged in the animoji creative process
Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel engaged in the animoji creative process
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Since the moment they were announced at Apple’s iPhone X event, my reaction to animoji has been the same as Sideshow Bob’s reaction to rakes. It’s probably a sign of my advancing age that I don’t find animated avatars — no matter how precisely they map to a person’s facial expressions — all that exciting or thrilling. I’m the guy that gets jazzed about bigger batteries, more storage, and better cameras. The hard and universally tangible things. Not the frivolous and cutesy animal avatars that Apple is dressing up as animoji.

Or so I thought.

Then a colleague showed me the animoji message that his daughter had recorded, and it suddenly dawned on me. Animoji could be exactly the tool we need to start doing video messages as often as we do ones in writing, emoji, or GIFs. Here’s the clip:

The animoji video immediately draws the focus to the audio of the girl’s voice, and the chicken’s exaggerated expressions just serve to enhance that effect. No distractions.

The key is in the depersonalization and the stripping of extraneous information that animoji provide: things like how messy your room is, how puffy your face is, and so on are simply taken out. There’s a very legitimate barrier, whether defined in terms of vanity or privacy, to us casually putting a phone to our faces and saying whatever it is we have to say. Regular video is too personal. Animoji video? It’s instantly goofy, and instead of conveying all the awkward details of real life, it just communicates lightheartedness.

The Apple “magic” in this entire situation is all the stuff the company crammed in the notorious notch of the iPhone X. There’s basically an entire Kinect system contained within it, providing accurate depth information and allowing users to create highly expressive animations (It maps more than 50 facial muscles in real time). In short, animoji can only work as advertised because of the sophistication and reliable operation of the underlying tech.

Image: Apple

An interesting phenomenon will develop around animoji, as people will be able to deliver much more expressive messages than before: they’ll be able to wink, wiggle their eyebrows, make frowny faces, and nod their heads with approval while delivering what’s essentially a sound message. All the variety of facial communication without needing to actually use your face. In the case of my colleague, or any other parent, a video of their child represented by a chicken avatar is vastly more shareable than an actual video message showing the child’s face and home. People like me can go “aww” and hit a like button on a piece of online content that’s still personal, but not so personal as to give rise to privacy concerns.

Everywhere on the internet, avatars have helped us control how much information we give of ourselves to others, whether it’s been through eBay accounts, World of Warcraft heroes, anonymized Twitter handles, or pseudonymous forum accounts. It’s the very essence of privacy to have that control and to be able to choose who knows and sees what about you. Apple, a company already working hard to create a reputation for itself as a leader in privacy, is applying similar principles to animoji. It’s letting us express more of ourselves — we can be (terribly hammy) actors, we can be lip-syncing karaoke stars, or we can be sweetheart kids reminding our parents we love them — without having to expose more of ourselves.

Like all good ideas, this one seems like it should have already been obvious. Apple fancies animoji as the evolution of emoji, but they might also be the next stage in the development of voicemail. They certainly make sound messages vastly more interesting and engaging.