A flurry of Instagram dumps have taken hold of the grid overnight, showing off whimsical portraits that somehow bypass the uncanny valley. Slide after slide show users metamorphosed into fairies, warriors, cyborgs and elves — living artworks pulled from a science fiction novel and 'painted' with a glossy stroke.
While Lensa AI has been around since 2018, the artificial intelligence app gained popularity at the start of December this year for its new 'magic avatars' feature, which takes a handful of photos of an individual, and spits back 50 portraits in different art styles with an in-app purchase.
The corresponding 'AI trend' has since hit social media, with people showing off their ethereal depictions, presented with new hairstyles, makeup and aesthetics that are, quite literally, out of this world.
While the majority of examples shared online that have garnered mass attention are posted by conventionally attractive, white influencers who fit the mould of Western beauty standards — and who have gone viral for being 'pretty' in their metaverse form as well — the app also offers a refreshing outlet for people who sit outside these rigid societal expectations.
"The queer Indigenous urge to pay $3 to have your face digitally rendered by AI into multifaceted futuristic being of your dreams so you can pretend you live in some kind of affirming utopia," writes artist and DJ Priya Vunaki on Instagram, accompanying a slideshow with pink and purple curls, chromatic makeup and utility-style jackets topped with a robot on their shoulder. "And [I] can work out future hairstyles to experiment with," they add.
The transformative power of avatars has long gone hand in hand with technology. From the days of roleplaying games (RPGs) where trans and gender diverse players could visually explore their identity online, to augmented reality TikTok filters that offer gender euphoria by manipulating facial features.
"These Lensa AI photos have really given me so much euphoria, they really capture and enhance your energy."
Queer Tweeters have expressed the same sentiment with Lensa, sharing the effect that seeing themselves through the lens of their phone screen has made on them.
But while Lensa has sustained the role avatars can play in enhancing the lives of diverse and minority communities, it has also identified loopholes where AI can — and often does — cause more harm than good.
Other users have noted that the app has slimmed down larger-bodied people, warning the internet to save their time and money by avoiding misrepresentation.
"There are a few good reasons to not to engage with the Lensa app trending right now, but I wanna especially warn my fat babes that if the idea of seeing your face on thin bodies might trigger you, definitely avoid it," a Twitter user shares.
Additionally, there have also been concerns that the app perpetuates the male gaze, with hyperfeminised ideations of female-identifying individuals drawing into question what datasets the AI received, and who fed it to them in the first place.
The algorithm in question is also based on a deep learning model called Stable Diffusion, which has been accused of ripping off human artists to base its own work off, and the Lensa terms and conditions outline that the company can use the manipulated photos you upload for any way it sees fit.
Society will always have a complicated relationship with the ever-evolving power of image generators. This year alone, the influx of options available in the mainstream — DALL-E, MyHeritage and the AI Art TikTok filter — has proven that the ability to create whatever you want will only get stronger in the years to come.
AI will continue to be used to show people what they look like with different appearances; a 'try before you buy' ahead of a hair appointment or cosmetic procedure, or a dabble with a new facet of yourself that you hadn't considered or expressed before.
It can uphold and also tear down beauty norms, validate or quash what someone sees in the mirror, and affirm or deny vital parts of one's identity for the world to see. But how the potential is manifested needs checks and balances.