Snapchat Lens Creator Spotlight: Ger Killeen

For Oregon-based Gerard Killeen, the interaction of the user and his lenses is paramount. The Lens Creator, who also writes poetry among other endeavors, strives to bring joy and introspection to his work.

Though some of his lenses lean toward the macabre (beware, Arachnophobs), many are intriguing, funny, and totally imaginative. I caught up with Killeen to learn more about his process.

Q: How long have you been using Snapchat? When did you start making your own lenses?

A: I’ve been using Snapchat for about three years and after about a year I started making my own lenses — very basic ones to begin with, using some of the templates in Lens Studio. At that time I was teaching New Media at a small university, also working with ar.js and A-Frame and struggling a bit with trying to incorporate some of my ideas into web-based AR. So Lens Studio allowed me to leap ahead into a couple of new areas and Snapchat gave me access to a new group of viewers.

Q: Which lens (of ones you’ve made or others) is your current favorite?

A: My current favorite is a lens I made a few months ago called Portrait’s End
The idea behind it is that AR is changing the whole idea of representation in art and the viewer’s relationship to art. Perhaps it’s asking us to consider that maybe we’re not a single self but a multitude of selves which flash in and out of existence depending on who’s viewing us, what context we’re being viewed in, [and] what “face” we’re wearing.

Q: What do you like about creating lenses and seeing people use them?

A: One of the things I most like about creating lenses is that I get to use both the left side and the right side of my brain. My background is in literature and the humanities and I’ve always loved putting texts and images together in creating stories and narratives.

AR literally gives me a new dimension to work with here; and making lenses that live up to what I imagine often demands learning and using new technical skills — writing some Javascript code to make an effect, going down the rabbit hole of machine learning to extend some of Lens Studio’s capabilities, or constructing an interesting 3D object (that really pushes the limits of my current capabilities!)

I always get a rush when I see my lenses being used by total strangers — whether it’s people having fun with a weird face lens or people using one of my “artistic” world lenses in a context or situation I would never have dreamed of.

Q: What’s your favorite type of lens to create? Favorite type of lens to see from others?

A: Actually my favorite type of lenses to create are lenses designed for Snap Spectacles 3. I take a lot of 3D snaps using Spectacles 3 and then play with the possibilities of depth and camera path to overlay the video with objects and even poetic texts.

Part of the reason I like this is because Spectacles 3 gives me a hint of what’s next for the future of AR. Like a lot of people, I can hardly wait for the day when wearable, lightweight AR headgear allows us to put a complex lens or other digital overlay on our world — hands-free, in real time. The storytelling possibilities of that are infinite.

I’m always inspired by what other creators are doing, of course. The face lenses of JP Pirie, and Wayne Lambo amaze me with their imaginative reach and technical skills. And the latest work from Helen Breznik, Tyleeseeuh, and Alie Jackson show how an artist can really push her unique vision out into the world in transformative ways.

Q: What inspires your lenses?

A: In a lot of my lenses I’m trying to tell a story or ask a question about our strange new world of media — what kind of self is presented in a selfie? What does it mean when a portrait looks back at you? Which kind of face-transformation excites you or scares you?

What story are you telling your friends when you send them a snap where you’re physically completely different from the person they know? Ideas like this usually get me started and then I try to figure out a way to embody them. Sometimes I will literally put 3D text into the AR space to encourage the user to follow a narrative.

Q: As a Lens Studio Creator, what opportunities do you think a tool like SnapML provides?

A: The machine learning capabilities of Lens Studio have gotten me really excited. Initially I just played a bit with Style Transfer and some simple object detection, but when I saw what other lens creators were able to imagine, it finally dawned on me that I was thinking too small about what’s achievable.

I don’t have a programming/technical background so I realized that I’d have to skill up considerably to do the kinds of things I was imagining. Or, to put it a better way, I don’t even know what I don’t know! The last six months or so I’ve spent taking courses on ML and AI, so I’m finally getting less uncomfortable with the whole process, though I’m still a total beginner.

One medium-term project I’ve been working on involves using SnapML to generate poetry when the camera finds particular objects. So far it’s a mess, but I’m learning a huge amount about what might and might not work!

Q: Where do you see your career going — how important is it for you to be a digital creator?

A: One of my major goals from the beginning has been to use AR in literary contexts. Unlike the visual arts (where a lot of artists who work in traditional media see how AR can amplify their work in very interesting ways), the literary arts have been a bit slower to see the potential: Some of my friends in the poetry world were or still are quite skeptical.

The idea I’ve been trying to work with is that when you put a poetic text and an AR effect together, the sum is greater than each of the individual parts — the total experience can make you read the poem differently and the language of the poem can influence how you engage with the digital art.

In theory, there’s nothing really original in this — someone like William Blake in the early 19th Century attempted it with his poems and their accompanying engravings. The difference is that AR as a set of techniques multiplies the range of artistic and poetic possibilities to produce something genuinely new. So I think for the foreseeable future I’ll be trying to make this work and show others how they might use it in their own literary work.

Q: What would be your dream project if money, time, and support weren’t an issue?

A: My dream project would be to write / build a long AR “novel” where readers themselves trigger changes in the plot, setting, and characters when they point their mobile devices at specific objects or images!

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