In Japan, a company called REAL-f is now producing something it calls "three-dimensional photo forms," or 3DPFs. Essentially, a 3DPF is a mask, but it's a mask in the sense that an iPad is a calculator. To make a 3DPF, REAL-f takes digital photographs of your mug from multiple angles, then uses these images to create a three-dimensional vinyl mold that precisely mimics the unique topography of your chin, your cheekbones, etc. Then, the company imprints high-resolution color photos of your face onto the mold, resulting in a three-dimensional photocopy of you that's so realistic it could probably fool your mother into thinking it's you, especially if you're the stoic type who never changes your expression. A REAL-f 3DPF captures every freckle and age spot, the bloodshot capillaries in the whites of your eyes, the exact coloration of your irises, the faintest creases in your brow. It's you exactly as you are at a given moment in time, immortalized for just $3,290.
"Exceed the real." That's REAL-f's corporate motto, and who doesn't aspire to that state of being now? As virtual worlds grow richer and more tactile, we expect life itself to evolve into something a little more lifelike too, filled with the sort of vivid and dynamic experiences cyberspace now offers. Why settle for your actual face when you might walk around the world wearing a high-definition mask that looks just like you, only somehow a little more so? REAL-f's masks aren't animate yet, but it's hard to imagine they don't point to a future where facial prosthetics get so realistic and so easy to integrate with one's actual face that we'll all look 25 forever, with no Botox necessary.
When the technology gets that good, will we be content to merely simulate our own faces? In this respect, REAL-f's masks are both harbingers of the future and nostalgic throwbacks to a bygone era when our notions of self were intimately connected to the singular bend of our noses, the unique whorl of our eyebrows. Even today, even in cyberspace, we look to the face to establish identity. Mark Zuckerberg's a billionaire not because he invented social networks but because unlike earlier social networks, Facebook specifically privileged identity over anonymity and emphasized facial portraiture as a means of establishing one's identity.
But modern life has left us with a taste for multiplicity and cyberspace in particular has extended this appetite to the self. In virtual worlds, the number of personas you can inhabit is limited only by how fast you can type. In the real world, we attempt to approximate such reconfigurability in myriad ways — it's no coincidence that plastic surgery exploded in popularity at precisely the same time that millions and millions of people began to create multiple identities for themselves in the online world. But while we can resculpt our faces and bodies with scalpels, while we can touch up our exteriors with a thousand different shades of spray-on tan, while we can supersize our muscles with steroids, cover our bodies in tattoos, and even have horns implanted into our foreheads, the corporeal world remains frustratingly static. The Internet has given us a taste of extreme mutability, constant experimentation — having a single face, even a single idealized face that never ages, seems constrictive, low-tech, incredibly 20th-century.
Eventually, going through life with just one face — even one that is regularly modified by plastic surgery, laser peels, Botox, etc. — will seem as odd as going through life with one hairstyle, one set of eyeglasses, one hat. But how soon will we get there? And when we do, how will our multiple, ephemeral faces change us? No doubt there will be security issues to address, but cultural issues may have an even greater impact. Once we can change faces as easily as we can change screennames, will our multiple faces make our personalities so volatile we will never really be satisfied with one spouse, one career path, one primary identity that serves as the basis for our values, our beliefs, our ultimate sense of who we are? At the moment, such questions still belong to the realm of science fiction. Gaze into the glassy, unblinking, but impressively realistic eyes of a REAL-f mask, however, and you realize these are questions we won't be able to sidestep forever. Someday — and probably sooner than we expect, given how rapidly technology progresses these days — they'll be staring us straight in the face.