When Instagram opened up its platform this August for anyone to create face filters, it sent a wave of creators to download Spark AR, Facebook’s software for building augmented reality effects. It’s user-friendly enough that beginners can create simple effects pretty quickly, but it’s also powerful enough for artists like Ommy Akhe to create world effects like AR designer rugs, dancing Bearbricks, and digital tarot cards.
I first saw Akhe’s work in the Spark AR Community group on Facebook, a place for users to show off their latest filters and share tips. The London-based creator’s filters push the limits of what Instagram Stories are capable of, elevating AR lenses to an art form. She’s created dozens of filters that are not only impressive technically, but conceptually as well, playing on everything from Co-Star push notifications, read receipts, and our AI facial recognition fears.
Though she studied to be an ethical hacker, creating Instagram filters has led her to shift her focus toward AR. I talked to Akhe about her favorite filters, how her background in security helped her transition to art, and the AR creator as a new kind of influencer.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What’s your background?
My background is actually in information security. So I trained at university to be a penetration tester, or an ethical hacker, and I kind of fell into AR. This was this summer in between my bachelor’s degree and master’s, as I was waiting for something to do. I discovered Spark AR and started playing around with it.
So you’re in grad school right now?
Not yet, I’m actually taking some time off to pursue AR. It’s taken off so quickly.
What was your first filter?
I think it was “Confidential,” which is a really simple filter. Essentially, it would pixelate the background behind you. I remember building it and testing it on my phone being like, “Wow, this is so cool!”
I think the first filter I saw from you was the “sensitive content filter.” I love the way it uses the Instagram UI. And then the one that really impressed me was the “home video” filter, that one was just so funny and clever. What do you think is your personal favorite?
It changes because when you build something, by the time that it’s out to the public, you start to hate it or you aren’t necessarily as enthusiastic about it as you were. I think people’s reactions to filters changes my opinion on them, or a filter grows to become your favorite based on an audience reaction to it.
Right now, I’d say my current favorite is probably “Supersede,” just because it’s so interesting seeing what people do with it. Calligraphers have completely taken over it. And that was an application that I had never thought about. In fact, it’s quite shocking, but you spend so many hours building something, and then at the end of the day, what somebody does is pick up a pen.
When I saw your AR Virgil Abloh “Keep Off” Ikea rug, I was like, “Oh my gosh, is she collaborating with him?” Is this an official filter?
[Laughs] If they want to call me, like, go for it, I would love to.
When I submitted my AirDrop filter, I was really worried it would get rejected because it’s Apple UI. Have you run into any issues from Instagram? Especially with the Ikea rug, it’s not an official filter, but it still got approved.
The thing that really confuses everybody who makes filters is where the line is and what you can and can’t do. Obviously, Instagram and Facebook implement their own rules to have objective metrics of what makes a good filter. But in terms of design and adopting applications for other things like UIs or products, it’s such a gray area. When it comes down to it, there’s been loads of brands that have been supportive or people making unofficial filters that pay homage to what they create. On the other hand, there are other brands that I suppose don’t like it.
I was going to ask if Spark AR influenced your career trajectory, but I guess it has in a big way. Are you considering going back to school?
I genuinely don’t know. It’s such an open-ended possibility because my background is in security. I am drawn toward that kind of world, but pursuing art has been extremely rewarding, especially seeing people interact with the filters.
I am thinking of maybe changing my degree course to something like machine learning or AI or creative computing.
Have you been getting a lot of freelance opportunities and clients coming to you with ideas?
Yeah, and it’s really fun to listen to ideas. There have been things like installations or brand filters. There’ve been all sorts of different applications, and it’s really fun to just kind of hear an idea or see a concept and find your own way of reimagining it and then seeing other people interpret your interpretation.
I saw you also make Snapchat filters. But it seems like Instagram filters have taken off in a way that Snapchat filters haven’t.
Instagram has such a unique and huge user base that people can’t help but engage with filters. I think being able to add filters to Stories has been a massive shift and change in Instagram culture.
A lot of people that I’m around would only put up the best pictures up on Instagram or be very much appearance-based, and filters have been a good way to kind of release that pressure. I think it makes it a lot less intimidating to interact with the platform, and I think people find it a lot more enjoyable.
Instagram recently banned filters promoting plastic surgery. What are your thoughts on that? I think you have one filter that alters your facial features, like it makes like your lips bigger and shaves down your chin. That one’s safe for now?
It’s safe, but now every day, I check to be like, “Are they still up?”
It’s an interesting policy for sure. I’ve not yet come to terms or really assessed the implications it really has. I think it would be important for Instagram as a platform, if they’re imposing rules and limitations on things, that it’s extended across the board. So let’s say that there is a battle on plastic surgery filters, especially because it has come from the angle of well-being. I think it would be important to then monitor everything that’s allowed on Instagram’s platform, whether that be advertisements or certain companies or brands. It’s important for them to not just limit creators on what they can build, and make sure that rules and regulations are applied consistently throughout the whole platform.
You’re so quick with creating these filters and very consistent with uploading new ones. Have the filter approval wait times been getting longer for you, now that more people are submitting filters?
100 percent. I remember when I first started, on a very good day, it would be like, two, three hours.
Now, if I submit a filter on the first of the month, then it’ll be the last of the month when it’s finally through. The queue time is definitely extended. It’s understandable because there’s such a huge bottleneck when it comes to the approval process. I know there are a lot more users coming into the platform and more people are creating effects, so it’s to be expected. But yeah, you just kind of have to work with it. It gives you lots of time to mull over ideas as well.
How do you feel about the Spark AR Facebook group? For the most part, they all seem really supportive. You’re like a rising star in that group.
Oh, somebody else in the community got a “top fan” badge! I’m jealous. I want one. I love the community, I think it’s great that everybody shares their ideas. People are so supportive, which is amazing. There are so many people that you can learn from, and they’re willing to teach you.
I think if it wasn’t for the community, I wouldn’t be building as often on Spark. The community aspect in itself is what pushes me a lot to build quickly and push myself to do better.
So you studied computer science in college. Have you always had an interest in tech?
Always. I was always advanced when it came to computers, then I became interested in fashion and design, and I set up my own mini-clothing line when I was 16 years old. I remember because I was young and I didn’t know what I was doing — like you can’t afford to pay someone to build a website, you spend time online learning how to do it yourself. And then I got hacked! That got me thinking, “I don’t want this to happen to me ever again.” So I went from being like, “I want to be a fashion designer” to being like, “That’s it, I’m going to become an ethical hacker.”
That’s an amazing origin story.
[Laughs] It’s a weird one, for sure.
Okay, so I was going through your Instagram grid, and it’s almost like a lot of face filter creators could be considered a new kind of influencer. How does the grid fit into your Instagram strategy?
This comes up so often. I’ve had to start thinking about what this Instagram grid means. Some people have used the term “uncanny valley” to describe it because the more you scroll, the more unsettling it gets. I first joined Instagram over a year ago now, and at first, it was just a way for me to catalog my clothes. I might take a picture of an outfit [just to look at the] combinations. For me, it was like standing against the white backdrop, and making sure everything is uniform.
I didn’t really expect people to start paying attention to it or following me. And I suppose it’s just what I continued doing because it’s what I’m used to.
Your website is super interesting. What was the process of making that effect?
Did you learn a lot of this in school, or did you have to learn on your own?
It’s a mix of both. There are lots of things that I learned at university that I’ll come to now and be like, “Wow, it finally makes sense.” We had a robotics module in which the software was similar to Spark, so when I came to Spark, the interface wasn’t completely alien to me. But it is a lot of experimenting, figuring things out by yourself. It’s good to have personal projects and try and push yourself to do things the right way.
What I try to do is read APIs for things. So the Spark API, it’s a lot to go over, and it’s boring at times and just documentation. But I will read the API and be like, “Okay, I’ve learned about visual shaders today.” That’s part of the reason why I create so quickly because I’m going through the API and aspects of the software. It’s a good way to learn, and when you get comfortable with anything, it just flows naturally.
You’ve done your homework. You know everything about the program.
It doesn’t feel like work, which is the fun part.