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Commentary Phones

Galaxy S9's AR Emoji weird me out

Commentary: Somewhere between Nintendo's Mii and Apple's animoji lies the Galaxy S9's odd approach to social.

Scott Stein/CNET

The first time I tried Samsung's new AR Emoji feature on a Galaxy S9, launched earlier this week at Mobile World Congress, I thought I knew what to expect. I smiled, and the camera app's new feature scanned my face, taking a picture. And then, sure enough, it spat out my new avatar.

But it didn't look like me.

Aiming to compete with Apple's iPhone X animojis, the Galaxy S9's AR Emoji feature is a "fun" use of augmented reality that just feels stale. It wasn't all that good at recognizing me, or at animating me. In the end, it wasn't as good as an avatar creator like the Bitmoji app, or as an AR toy.

Maybe, with more time with the phone in the future, I'd get used to them. But my first attempts were pretty rough.

myemoji-180220-142644-5

The Galaxy S9 autogenerates a GIF collection with your new face.

Scott Stein/CNET

Hello, Samsung avatar me

My AR emoji has tall hair, and face stubble. It looks more like a former colleague of mine than it does me. And it doesn't even come with glasses: I have to add them myself from one of three options. I look... thinner, airbrushed and cartoon-generic.

I shared my emoji on Twitter, and rapidly realized that I wasn't the only one who looked like this. In fact, suddenly, it seemed like I had a whole family of identical white, glasses-wearing AR Emoji siblings.

So, I guess I could also customize the avatar, change clothing, alter features, like a Mii or Bitmoji or any of the other ways to do this. I was excited that somehow Samsung would just figure it out automagically.

I've done this many times before: I spent at least an hour in the mid-2000s making my first Mii on the Nintendo Wii, customizing little cartoon features into an astonishingly flexible array of options. Same too for Microsoft's Xbox 360 avatars. I made a virtual version of myself in Oculus last year that doesn't really look like me. I can make a Scott-avatar in Bitmoji, too, but it's not automatic and doesn't use facial recognition yet.

But facial recognition on AR Emoji only got me so far.

Creepy face

Then I started trying to animate my new artificial me with my own face, and things started feeling wrong. I mean, the Galaxy S9 can recognize my face, and can turn my facial movement into emoji movement. Like Apple's animojis, I can record a clip puppeting myself in AR Emoji.

The level of facial recognition feels way off though. My smiles wouldn't register. My blinks came out jittery. My whole face, as Jessica Dolcourt also noted, felt botoxed.

It's free (if you get the phone), so stop stressing out, right? But it's not particularly charming. Everyone I showed my video to got weirded out. I looked smarmy. I couldn't get rid of what looked like an odd smirk. I wasn't even smiling.

Maybe it's that AR Emoji tries to make my face feel more real, like a virtual Scott. Apple's animojis, perhaps smartly, use a small collection of nonhuman animals, robots and poop. My mind isn't as attentive to how realistically a poop smiles. But I know how people do.

Or maybe that isn't quite it, either. There are nonhuman characters I can facially animate in Samsung's AR Emoji app: a bunny, or a blue square bear-thing. Those are far more fun. I'm less creeped out. I can't explain why, but I'd rather see a quirky, oddly blinking bunny than a quirky, oddly blinking me.

The app can work with the front and rear cameras, so you could even have a friend across from you puppet your face for you (as I did on a live segment on Cheddar). But, either way, it didn't work well enough that I'd want to do it much more than once or twice.

Uncanny valley or imperfect facial tracking, or is it just me?

Snapchat has no problem with insane facial puppeting using all sorts of tricks. Samsung's AR Emoji is a pale shadow of that. Also, I'm far more excited about the prospects of Google's ARCore, which will work on the Samsung Galaxy S9. It's not clear, however, whether ARCore will eventually apply to front-facing camera AR for selfie shots.

To be sure, Samsung could update AR Emoji and improve its abilities in future updates. (I reached out to Samsung but didn't immediately hear back.) The assumption here is it will get better... but how much better? 

I've seen far better AR than what AR Emoji is offering. But even if Samsung's emoji were absolutely perfect, and its face-generating tool spot-on, I'm not sure I'd use it all that much, either.

Despite Apple's iPhone X animojis being charming, I don't even really care about those, either. I'm fickle when it comes to novelty face filters. I play with them and discard them. AR Emoji is significantly less exciting. I'd pick Snapchat, or any other face filter, first. AR Emoji isn't a reason to get a phone: I already have apps for that. The Galaxy S9 looks like excellent hardware. But, when it comes to camera novelties, I'd stick with ones that actually transform what I'm shooting... not animojifying my face.

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