Technology

We Tested the ‘Disappearing People Project’ to See If We Could Go Invisible on a Live Webcam

Things got weird.

by Shamani Joshi
29 February 2020, 7:31am

Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak. Lord of the Rings had the One Ring of invisibility. Mr India had a watch that allowed him to go unnoticed. But in 2020, we have the invisibility webcam.

A new privacy tool software released by Google web engineer Jason Mayes lets you remove yourself from the frame of a webcam so that only your surroundings can be seen. The tool is built using JavaScript and TensorFlow, a software that takes advantage of Google’s neural network to automatically delete a human from a shot.

While many are questioning why exactly we even need such a tool when we can simply switch off the webcam, it could be super useful in situations where, say, a hacker were to secretly activate your webcam and spy on you. Of course, slapping on a sticker on your webcam is still the easier option but this technology could revolutionise the potential of visual effects in films or even homemade videos, ultimately eliminating the need for a green screen to record object movements without any human presence.

To do this, you have to first walk around your webcam frame so that the neural network can record the background and replicate it. Currently, this tool is still in demonstration mode and has a few kinks and glitches to work out, but as the neural network is developed and fine-tuned, the results are expected to automatically improve. So, we decided to give the invisible webcam—or ‘Disappearing People Project’ as it has been dubbed—a run for its (non-existent) money.

Like most things on the internet, at first it seemed totally cool and promising.

But just one hand movement was enough to shake things up and make it act all weird, creating a glitchy effect that definitely wouldn’t fool anyone.

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I placed it in a room full of people going about their daily routine and it decided to eliminate them all. This is probably what the post-apocalypse would look like, minus the dusty debris.

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I placed an action figure behind to see if it could tell the difference. Clearly, I’m not cosplay material.

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I then tried on an old pigeon mask and things got weird. While it managed to remove me from the frame, the hovering pigeon head was having its own existential crisis.

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So, I asked my editor to draw me (which she did an amazingly accurate job of, obviously). Clearly, the resemblance showed since the camera got so confused, it started seeing double vision.

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Just like the rest of us, this software still has to introspect and work on itself to fix its issues. And of course if a hacker did want to access your webcam, they could probably figure some way to undo this privacy feature too. But if you want to be the next Steven Spielberg on a shoe-string budget, the 'Disappearing People Project' could do wonders.

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