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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Snap Inc. has launched an initiative to redesign its core camera technology to make it better able to capture a wide range of skin tones, the company tells Axios.

Why it matters: Around 5 billion pictures are taken using Snapchat's camera each day. Those images form the starting point for how many people see themselves, their friends and their world.

Historically, the chemical processes behind film development used light skin as its chemical baseline — basically optimizing for whiteness, a legacy that continues today, says Snap engineer Bertrand Saint-Preux.

  • "The camera is, in fact, racist," Saint-Preux said.

Between the lines: Film cameras eventually got better at exposing for darker tones, but not as part of a concerted effort to make things more equitable for people. Rather, it was complaints from chocolate makers and photographers shooting other dark subjects that pushed the industry to do better.

  • The early days of digital photography were similarly fraught. Some HP webcams, as well as Microsoft's Kinect, promised the ability to detect faces, but had trouble doing so with people of darker skin tones.
  • Technology, though, has made strides in recent years that should aid the effort, including high dynamic range and the ability to fuse multiple captures to create a single image.

For Snapchat, the "inclusive camera" effort is broader than just capturing dark skin as well as light skin. It means identifying and removing biased assumptions (e.g. that smaller, thinner noses are better) when automatically adjusting people's appearance.

  • The company still wants people to have flexibility, but wants to make a high-quality true image the starting point and then put the controls in the hands of the individual.
  • The companywide effort started with a presentation made to top executives by Saint-Preux last summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

How it works: Snap is working with several noted directors of photography from the film industry to learn techniques they use to best capture actors with darker skin tones. Among the projects that are in development or testing:

  • Developing techniques to adjust images after they have been captured, such as correcting brightness and exposure to create a more balanced image.
  • Improving the selfie camera’s ability to capture low light by making adjustments to the front flash. So, for example, if someone was taking a selfie in a dark room, the display would use the right type of lightwaves to properly illuminate their skin tone.
  • Another key area involves machine learning systems and how those systems are optimized. If you tell a computer to optimize for the best average result in photos — which is what many algorithms do — it will make most people appear better and not worry if some people at the margins have a poor result.
  • On the flip side, if you focus on getting the quality of everyone's image above a certain threshold, you will produce a more equitable result.

Yes, but: Snap readily acknowledges its track record is far from perfect. This is the same company that released a digital blackface Bob Marley feature for 4/20 several years ago, and just last year had to apologize for a Juneteenth filter that asked subjects to "smile" while they break free from chains.

  • "We are very mindful of our past mistakes and are applying what we've learned to all of our efforts to build more inclusive design processes, systems and products," Snap told me.

What's next: Snap is working on a variety of efforts that will take longer to bring to market. One part is expanding the inclusive camera effort to other groups, such as ensuring that those with glasses or other assistive aids can fully use the company's filters.

  • Snap is also looking for how it might enable outside developers and partners to take advantage of the tools it is creating internally.

Go deeper

Hollywood union reaches deal with studios to avert strike

Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

A Hollywood workers' union reached a tentative deal with studios, networks and streamers that will guarantee better working conditions, meal breaks and increased wages for low-paid workers, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) announced Saturday night.

Why it matters: The deal, which still needs to be ratified by IATSE members, will avert a nationwide strike by film and television workers that was set to start Monday. It would have been the first strike in the union's 128-year history.

Bill Clinton released from hospital following treatment for non-COVID infection

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former President Bill Clinton was discharged from the University of California, Irvine Medical Center on Sunday, nearly a week after he was admitted for a non-COVID-related infection, according to his spokesperson Angel Ureña.

What they're saying: "His fever and white blood cell count are normalized and he will return home to New York to finish his course of antibiotics," wrote Dr. Alpesh Amin, who has been overseeing the team of doctors treating Clinton. "On behalf of everyone at UC Irvine Medical Center, we were honored to have treated him and will continue to monitor his progress."

Worth noting: Clinton had a urinary tract infection that spread to his bloodstream, per CNN.

  • The California-based medical team had been administering IV antibiotics and fluids, and was in constant communication with Clinton's New York team, including his cardiologist, according to the former president's physicians.
  • President Biden spoke by phone with Clinton on Friday to see how he was doing, and the catch-up included a discussion of recent politics.
6 hours ago - Technology

TikTok drives new nostalgia economy

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Older brands, trends and technologies are making a comeback as younger consumers desperately chase slower, less chaotic times.

The big picture: TikTok's algorithm makes it easy for flashback items to resurface and quickly go viral both on its platform and eventually on other social networks.

You’ve caught up. Now what?

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