Digital Lab #1: Instagram filters

Article written together with Thomas Byttebier and Lukas Liefsoens

This article was first published on Base Design website.

This post shows the output of the first Base Digital Lab. The Digital Lab is a monthly recurring internal experimental workshop at Base in which a designer and a developer are paired for two days. The goal is to explore new web technologies, and what they could mean for brands tomorrow. Want to know more?

Instagram is a hot spot. And now that everyone can create custom filters, it has turned even hotter:

Instagram filters are all the hype right now. New ones pop up every day. Some go viral in a matter of days:

The question that mostly interested us in this first edition of the Base Digital Lab was of course: what could those filters mean for brands today?

Dior lets people try on hats, glasses and make-up live in augmented reality. It’s cool, and all it takes for a whole generation to go crazy. Also, Louis Vuitton collaborated with League of Legends to create a very hype filter. (Below is Lukas chasing Louis in our Brussels studio.)

Gimmicky? Maybe. Does it result in more sales? Unsure. But it’s the network effect in full force. Interactive and highly effective, it lets communities spread brands like crazy.

And yet, whereas Snapchat filters always felt 'just fun', for Instagram it's not only purposeless play. In October, Instagram rolled out an AR-enabled try-on feature for a handful of businesses already selling through the platform. In its initial stages, the feature is only available for companies in the cosmetics and eyewear space. Some initial partners include Warby Parker, Ray-Ban, Mac and Nars. With AR customers can see what an advertised lipstick or a pair of sunglasses looks like when worn.

All this was reason enough for us to dig into Instagram filters. So with no expectations but a lot of excitement, Lukas and Louis spent two days figuring out how we could potentially use them for some of our clients.

Day 1: getting started with SparkAR

Our starting point was SparkAR Studio. Facebook released this Instagram filter programming tool just a few months ago. It was pretty easy to get started. Here's a video of Louis detecting mouth open/close as he was exploring the software.

This is Lukas trying to do something as well. (Still not sure what exactly.)

It was remarkable how quickly we were able to come up with fun stuff like bananas falling down when detecting a smile, removing the type from a Base tote bag or cookies appearing in space exactly where you're looking.

Ever wanted to have type dancing on your head? Or what about a nice statue as a piece of furniture for your office?

Here we detect a Base tote bag then let Maison Dandoy cakes fly out of it:

SparkAR Studio is fast to work with because of the convenient nodes based interface, as you can see at the bottom of this video:

You can tell the workshop vibe was good and exciting as half the team walked in and out of the room to see the progress. That led us to try a filter that detects a face, then pastes our founding partner Thierry's face on top of it.

Here's Thierry trying the same filter, resulting in his face pasted on his face in augmented reality. (Had to share.)

Day 2: what can this mean for our clients? Some quick experiments.

We learned that Instagram filters can be promoted based on location. That reminded us of Snapchat's 2015 Coachella geofilters, generating a sense of exclusivity amongst festival goers. At the time of this Digital Lab we were creating a new identity for De Warmste Week, the biggest charity event in Belgium (organized by Studio Brussel). Every year this event gathers tens of thousands of people on location over the course of a week. We figured promoting the filter on location would be perfect in spreading the vibe across Belgian social media. A stamp proving attendance. Here’s a quick and simple try-out we did:

It’s a meaningless experiment for now of course; but it would be exciting to dig in some more and spend time pushing the boundaries of this idea for an actual client project.

Another client of us, Art and History Museum, is currently running an exhibition called Crossroads that focuses on the Middle Ages. As they were building the exposition, they posted a video on their Instagram as a viking boat arrived by car. (I never imagined an exhibition piece to enter a museum just like that.)

Anyway, the vikings!

We figured we could have people share selfies with viking helmets on, as they enter the museum. The filter we created would add visual brand elements to each post automatically as well. Admittedly a bit clumsy for now, but promising.

There’s also crazy 3D possibilities in Instagram filters. We had a big poster laying around from last year’s seasonal campaign we created for La Monnaie / De Munt. We put it up on the wall, let the phone detect the drawing and add another dimension to it.

We only invested a very short amount of time on this, but it was remarkably quick to come up with something real. It definitely makes us hungry for more. (If you want to see what could be done with more resources, make sure to check what Facebook did in this awesome collaboration with Tate Britain to demo the 3D possibilities of sparkAR.)

So, what's the verdict?

These filters and effects of course only exist within the closed ecosystem of Instagram. If you're not on the platform, you're never going to see them and there is no way today to make these effects work inside a browser. That is obviously a disadvantage. It is a closed technology, owned by a for-profit company that can do whatever it wants with it.

That being said, SparkAR is a quick way to create fun effects. And until e-commerce really hits off on Instagram, it appears its filters are mostly just that: a fun playground.

However, there's definitely specific use cases where they could already prove useful for brands today. They are for instance an easy way for internal teams to create visually branded posts on the platform. Also for brands that come alive through a community (think schools like IFM) filters can be a great way to bring visual consistency with zero user effort.

Apart from that, it's naturally a magnificent tool to launch campaigns, bring a sense of exclusivity to big events, and let tribes spread brands.