Changing faces – Summer Science 2011

Door handles at Royal Society Photo source:

When you walk through the wrought iron gates of No. 6 Carlton Terrace, there is something in the air that makes you realise you are somewhere great. I never fail to have a feeling that I am privileged to be entering this place of scientific excellence. I always smile as I walk through the front doors, where the door handles encase double helices, and step into the 18th Century listed building, the home of the Royal Society.

On Sunday 10th July, my course-mate, Camila Ruz, and I visited the Royal Society to have a geeky Sunday afternoon looking around this year’s Summer Science Exhibition. The rooms of this prestigious institution were packed with people. The very young mingled with the old, each squeezing through the crowds in order to get up close and personal with the science on show.

Camila and I spent time fishing for shark teeth, practicing our surgery skills and learning about diseases carried by bats – it was a wealth of scientific knowledge for us to absorb. However, there was one exhibit which captured my attention more then any other; that of the Maths Inside Project – “run by the Mathematics Promotion Unit (a collaboration between the London Mathematical Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications) in conjunction with Plus and the Royal Society.”

Using maths to manipulate 12 separate factors (principal components) of the face, from skin colour to jaw line, cheekbones to nose shape, the researchers showed how you could create a diverse range of human faces. You could even change a beautiful female face with soft features into a striking, angular male face with just a few minor alterations.

Faces change as you move along one of the principal components. The left-most image sits at one end of the principal component vector, then moves closer to the average face (centre image), until finally it reaches the antiface (the right-most image) of the left-most image, at the opposite end of the principal component vector. Source:

Understanding how to human face is built is important for generating realistic computer simulations, and also in building computers that can recognise humans faces and facial expressions. Using the latest geek accessory, the iPad, one of the researchers showed us how the programme examined the changes in the 12 factors as a persons face moved when they talked. When two videos of the same person saying the same thing were then played side by side, it was almost impossible to tell which was the real person and which was the fake person generated using data from the programme. It was actually quite spooky!

This is one of the clips which we were shown at the exhibit. Here the mathematical analysis of one person’s movements allows the programme to transport expressions and movement from one face to another:

Taking it one step further, the programme can also record movements of the entire head. We all have our own little quirks when we speak; we move our head and bodies in our own unique way as we tell jokes, describe situations or try to deceive each other. It makes us who we are, and helps friends and family to recognise us. The computer can pick these differences up and apparently people can tell which friend the computer is using data from… even if a neutral face, not resembling that friend, is shown. Creepy!


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