It’s Boom Times for Augmented Reality

I am alone in my apartment, as always, and I’ve just replaced my left eyeball with an orange springing out of its peel.
A mile away, a friend, also home alone, is taking her seat—every seat, actually—at the table in The Last Supper , yelling as the camera pans down the row of disciples and her face replaces that of one man after another. Another friend is watching a mouse dressed as the Pope dance across her kitchen floor. A third is smiling while a strange man wraps his arms around his throat.
Many of us have nowhere to go, no one to see, no communal experience to be a part of, no shared feelings other than dread. But the platforms of the pandemic—Zoom, Instagram, Snapchat, FaceTime—all let us pretend that our life is more than just four walls. With augmented-reality filters, users can mess with their appearances in elaborate ways. Before the coronavirus hit, out-there virtual effects were something of a novelty, but now they’re becoming a major mode of passing the time, giving us the technology to make our faces interesting enough to keep on sharing.
All day long, I flip through Instagram stories, and watch one augmented diary of life inside after another. These tools now feel like part of a basic vocabulary for talking about a day during which nothing at all happened— this was the day fresh fruit bloomed out of my eye socket, this was the day books poured from my mouth . When the pandemic is over, this is how many of us might remember spending this time: Looking into a front-facing camera, at all hours, with unlimited options for making ourselves hot or scary or unrecognizable.

Every week since the beginning of the pandemic, Mitsuko Ono—a 31-year-old augmented-reality designer in Manila—has been releasing zany new Instagram filters. There’s “BLINK!,” which replaces a user’s eyelashes with a row of tiny fingers, and “Baby Face,” which makes a baby’s arms and legs sprout out of the user’s head. On the strength of these oddities, she’s become a widely known member of the platform’s growing filters-and-effects community.
“I enjoy seeing people of all ages, from different parts of the world, play around [with] my work,” Ono told me in an email. “It inspires me to create more, knowing I can bring happiness to people in spite of the situation we are all in.”
Where once fashion bloggers and travel influencers were racking up thousands of new followers a day, people such as Ono are Instagram’s latest stars. During the pandemic, they’re also some of the only people on the platform who can create anything worth sharing.
These filters are so popular that the big hits have been used tens of millions of times in a matter of weeks. According to Instagram, the most popular effect right now is “Revolution,” which duplicates the user over and over in diagonal rows stretching back into the distance—a crisply arranged army of one. Also near the top is an effect called “ AAAHHHHHHH!!!...