Augmented reality promises to alter our perception of the world and ourselves, leaving us hanging on by our fingernails to what’s real. By Gillian Terzis.

Augmented reality nail art

Augmented reality includes nail art that triggers animation when viewed through an app.
Augmented reality includes nail art that triggers animation when viewed through an app.
Credit: Sam Orchard

I can still remember, vividly, the rush I felt when I received my first full-time pay slip in my mid-20s. The first thing I spent it on was a manicure. After years of piano playing, hospitality jobs and smoking, my nails – chipped, discoloured and brittle – elicited deep shame. They signalled my poor dietary habits, my precarious mode of living. They looked too human. For me, impeccable nails weren’t just an expression of good nutrition but an aesthetic sign of lucrative sinecure.

Like many women, I’m a willing participant in the cosmetics–industrial complex and its associated, elaborate grooming rituals. I know perfection is an illusion, and an ephemeral one at that, but the promise of projecting one’s best self – and the ability to express that self to others – is still a thrill. But the rules of adulthood adhere to a preordained and restrictive aesthetic code. To aspire to “good taste” as an adult is to prize discretion over fun.

Metaverse Nails, it should be said, is not a product for sensible, low-maintenance adults. For one thing, its style is dominated by sea-foam green, shocking purple, ’90s pastels and New Age crystal themes. For another, it’s nail art with a phone app that adorns users with augmented reality manicures and holograms – in other words, virtual bling.

The project is an initiative of Metaverse Makeovers, a start-up comprising artists, technologists and engineers based in Melbourne, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The company works in the burgeoning field of “augmented reality” – where computer-generated data such as video and sound is incorporated into a real-world environment. Thea Baumann, Metaverse’s founder and chief executive officer, says its ethos is “collaborative and female-led”. “We’re artists as engineers, which gives us a different way to bring our technology directly into the hands of young women,” she says.

Metaverse Nails’ dizzying synthesis of artifice and reality is what makes the app so addictive. Baumann admits the project is probably a little too sparkly for the mainstream Australian market, so the company is instead conducting on-the-ground research for entry into the lucrative Chinese market, where the popularity of nail bars may make it more of a natural fit. “Nail bars are a very social environment,” Baumann says. “Young girls go there, they whip out their mobile phones and take an Instagram shot of their sparkling nails. They would play social games, they would interact with the nail technicians. It’s a very socially wired environment and business space.” And investors are inclined to agree: the company has already received $750,000 from venture capital group Melbourne Angels, as well as funding from Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Enterprise Fund and a number of investors in China.

“I make hologram sparkly nails and wearable technology, hologram technology and hologram wearables,” Baumann tells me from Shanghai. “And I guess those kinds of ideas are pretty out there for Australian mindset.” She sees augmented reality as an electronic form of self-determination, a way for younger women to play with their online and offline identities.

As I ponder the possibilities of augmented reality adornment, I can’t help but think of the ’90s. Not just because of the nostalgia evoked by the nods to childhood TV shows such as Sailor Moon but because virtual reality was then the next great innovation – long heralded, but for a long time undelivered. Decades later, it’s still too early to say whether virtual reality is a fad or if it will determine our future. What purpose can it serve in our lives? Will new worlds spawn new narratives? Will augmented reality be a precursor to VR or another culture entirely?

Holography itself, or the production of holograms, has been around for some time, of course, and is an endeavour that has owed as much to science as it does to art. Salvador Dali is widely acknowledged as one of the first artists to explore holography as an artistic medium in 1973, when he depicted a rotating, three-dimensional image of a bejewelled Alice Cooper cradling a miniature statue of the Venus de Milo while a plaster sculpture of Cooper’s brain, adorned with an eclair crawling with live ants, loomed in the background. In March 1984, National Geographic was the first publication to reproduce a hologram – it chose a bald eagle – on its cover. The magazine’s editorial notes: “Though the sculptured eagle looks to its left, the cover hologram image faces right for heraldic tradition.”

Today, technologists are turning to holograms for their use in virtual and augmented reality experiences. Just this year, Microsoft announced details of Windows Holographic, a program that immerses gamers and other users in “mixed reality” scenarios.

Metaverse Nails has run pop-up nail bars and club nights in Melbourne, but Baumann says the concept only appeals to those with the kind of digital fluency honed by a life lived on Twitter and Instagram. In China, however, a different sensibility has emerged. “Australia isn’t as hyper-social as China or other Asian culture,” Baumann says. “Here in China, we can demonstrate our technology to grandmothers and old men sitting on the street playing gambling games and they can appreciate it for the fact that it’s something they can share among themselves.” Perhaps the biggest difference between Chinese and Australian markets is how the technology is marketed. Baumann says Chinese see the technology as part of a growing social media ecology, while Australians see it as a new development in wearable tech.

Whatever the perceived differences in market segmentation, Metaverse Nails is a lot of fun. Its augmented reality manicure is a two-part process. First, you apply adhesive decals to your fingernails, chosen from themed designs released seasonally. “Bo Peep”, for instance, commemorates the Year of the Sheep, while “Princess Fantasy” evokes classic manga and anime culture. The soon-to-be-released “Baby Rich” collection sounds mostly like an overt, goal-oriented lunge at teenage aspiration. I was provided with a pair of “Neon Leopard” nail decals in hot magenta and tangerine, which are said to appeal to “wild cats prowling a neon crystal urban jungle”. This seemed like a fantasy world I could happily embrace.

Once the decal is affixed to the nail, you use the phone app to “scan” the nail as if it were a QR code. After about five seconds of scanning, the app recognises the pattern on the decal and triggers virtual 3D animations that appear to sprout from your fingertips. Baumann describes the animations themselves as “collectable digital artworks”. There are a number of free “virtual bling” animations for your nail set as well as more that can be purchased from an online store launched this week. Photos of your augmented manicure can then be shared instantly through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or WeChat, a popular Chinese social messaging service.

My trial was transfixing. Otherworldly creatures, skulls, stray bullets, fireworks, floating doughnuts and comically sized jewels orbited my fingertips. I frantically tapped at my phone to screen-capture moments when the animations morphed, or when celestial hues or an aura of light appeared to envelop my hand. I must have taken at least four photos each time a new animation materialised, every five or so seconds. The process seemed to channel a childlike desire for shiny and fleeting objects. Who knew the technological sublime would be so pretty?

The human mind often entertains realities that the body withholds. Baumann believes that the divide between the real and the virtual will be bridged eventually. “The next step for me is, how do we put apps on people’s fingers? How do we actually let people see the world through that mediated perspective, and literally put the internet on people’s fingers and on their eyeballs?”

How might our lives change once our bodies became machine components, just as our tech devices are? The more time I spent on the app, the more I began to imagine my body not as a whole, but as the sum of its constituent parts: wiry limbs, pneumatic valves, fleshy organs, living and non-living tissue. Through the screen of my iPhone camera my virtual, festooned hand felt dissociated from my physical body. And it felt, for lack of a better word, unreal. Then I caught a glimpse of the peeling nail polish on the fingers I haven’t yet transformed. Lying underneath the most bedazzling augmented self is the reality of our living – and decaying – bodies. The interplay between the two is what may make augmented reality more compelling than what virtual reality once promised.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2015 as "Tricky fingers".

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Gillian Terzis is a San Francisco-based writer.

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