Once upon a time, a photo of something was enough to believe it was real. Sure, you’d have to deal with the occasional Big Foot hoax, but for the most part, those who had the time or talent to create believable fakes were in the minority.
Then came the age of Photoshop. Edits and fakes are prolific enough that “FAKE!” has become the default; a dubious photo is presumed fake unless proven otherwise.
We’re not quite to that point with video. Fake videos exist in droves, obviously, but editing a video to be something it’s not introduces a bevy of challenges not found in the editing of a single still frame, and generally requires considerably more time and talent to do right. People will still yell “FAKE!” but it’ll be a quieter yell. As your Facebook feed probably proves, moderately well-faked videos have a much easier time finding believers.
That might not be the case for long.
The video up top shows a work-in-progress system called Face2Face (research paper here) being built by researchers at Stanford, the Max Planck Institute and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.
The short version: take a YouTube video of someone speaking like, say, George W. Bush. Use a standard RGB webcam to capture a video of someone else emoting and saying something entirely different. Throw both videos into the Face2Face system and, bam, you’ve now got a relatively believable video of George W. Bush’s face — now almost entirely synthesized — doing whatever the actor in the second video wanted the target’s face to do. It even tries to work out what the interior of their mouth should look like as they’re speaking.
It’s not pixel-perfect yet — even in the relatively low-res clips we’re shown, there’s an uncanny valley effect of something being not quite right. But hot damn is it impressive (and, well, more than a little spooky) even in this early stage.
Why spooky? Technology like this will serve to make video less inherently believable. The video’s use of politicians as the editing target is pretty self-aware. In that regard, political hoaxes will hit a lot harder when it’s a video instead of a ‘shopped picture being forwarded around.
Don’t freak out too hard, though. Hoaxes have existed in every medium throughout history. This tech isn’t widely available beyond its researchers just yet; the uncanny valley challenges in stepping from “somethings-kinda-off” to pixel-perfect infallibility aren’t small ones. Just remember that, just like photos before it, being on video doesn’t mean it’s real — and that gets a lil’ bit truer each day.