February 27, 1997
University Gazette


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About Face

New Technique Customizes a Change of Face

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

Nose too large? Chin too far in or out? Lips too small?

A computer system that allows people to change images of their faces with a push of a button has been developed by researchers at the School of Dental Medicine. Individuals slowly change digitized images of their profile on a computer screen in the presence of a plastic or oral surgeon, orthodontist, spouse, or friends.

It's a new way to see how you'll look, and how others see you, before committing time and money to corrective surgery.

"It all started because there's no good method for a person to tell a physician or orthodontist, 'This is what I want to look like,' " notes Donald Giddon, a lecturer in orthodontics. "Looking through catalogs of noses, mouths, and chins is not the best way for someone to convey to a doctor what he or she wants to look like. The surgeon or orthodontist can come away with one image while the person has a different perception of how he or she looks, or wants to look."

Facial features on a digital color photograph can, with the help of special software, be changed continuously by pressing a computer key. Noses retreat, chins advance and recede, jaws are straightened until everyone agrees on changes that can be made for medical or cosmetic purposes.

"A small alteration makes a big difference," says Giddon, who is also a clinical professor of community health at Brown University. "We're trying to determine how much change is required for a face to go from unacceptable to acceptable, from recognizable to unrecognizable. The answer is, as little as a 1/25th of an inch."

Giddon shuns words like "pretty," "cute," and "ugly," because, he says, "it's too hard to agree on their meaning from culture to culture. In the experiments we have conducted, we used a variety of judges, including dentists, oral surgeons, spouses, and friends, to check a face. In almost every case, patients, professionals, and nonprofessionals agree on what should be changed to make a face more acceptable."

For those who have had to decide on changes using a video catalog of static faces, the new system is a boon.

A Reporter's Story

Take my face as an example. I once broke my nose badly enough to need a new one. I chose my replacement nose from a series of black and white photographs. It was extremely difficult to imagine what nose number 7, or number 2, would look like on my face.

Using Giddon's technology, I could have sculpted a nose 1/25 inch at a time until the results satisfied me. My wife, family, even friends could have checked my decision, and the doctor would know exactly what I wanted. He or she then could decide whether my preferences were realistic.

"The methodology presents a range of acceptable changes, rather than a single choice," Giddon says. "It also decreases patient-doctor confrontations over discrepancies between possibilities and expectations."

Beauty and Beholders

This research leads Giddon and many of his colleagues to doubt the old adage, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." "The definition of 'attractive' is becoming more global," he says. "There is almost universal agreement about proportions, or relationships between features, that beholders find appealing, regardless of racial differences." Such proportions underlie the so-called "soft tissue drape," which evolution and climate mold into features characterized as Caucasian, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, or Hispanic.

Victor Johnston of New Mexico State University maintains a computer base of 34 billion combinations of features. When asked to mix and match them to generate an attractive look, people often produce the same type of male or female face.

Topping the list for any face are symmetry and youthful features. For women, the latter include a small nose, short distance from lips to chin bottom, and a comparatively high forehead. Big eyes, full lips, and relatively prominent cheekbones complete the list.

Measures of male attractiveness include a strong, broad jaw, prominent brow ridge, bushy eyebrows, deep-set "hunter's eyes," and a nose that's not too large. John Kennedy Jr. and actor Brad Pitt are often cited as ideals.

Change of Face

Particularly difficult cases include people whom doctors regard as normal but who perceive themselves as ugly. It may be impossible to talk such individuals out of making unneeded changes, or to make changes that satisfy them.

Then there are those who want to change their racial characteristics. Giddon's research associate, Nina Anderson, described cases of "Japanese yuppies" who change their eyes to give themselves a more Western appearance. Some Korean women born in, or living in the U.S., also want to look more Western.

Giddon is exploring the question of how much change in particular features would be necessary for people to perceive an Asian face as Caucasian and vice versa. He and his colleagues also want to define what structures are responsible for characterizing a face as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.

"We are approaching this purely as a research question," he notes. "We do not yet possess the ability to make such changes."

Such research might be used in the future by terrorists or criminals in attempts to escape recognition. Lee Han Young, a fugitive from North Korea, underwent plastic surgery to avoid detection when he fled to South Korea. However, the disguise didn't prevent him from being shot last week.

People also have inquired about this technology for use in transsexual operations, raising the question of how to change a male face into a female face, or vice versa.

Other possible applications include determining which facial features might motivate pedophiles to abuse children, and how to position hair plugs to give men with male pattern baldness the look they desire.

"The technology also lends itself nicely to the fashion industry," Giddon comments. A person could determine what she or he looks like with this or that hairstyle or makeup, or how best to conceal a physical problem.

Giddon developed the system with the help of computer programmer Jason Kinchen, Carla Evans, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and postdoctoral researchers Regina Sconzo, Denise Kitay, and Debbie Bernier. The next step is to convert the system into a commercial product for planning treatment of facial and head deformities, an effort being supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Giddon and his colleagues also plan to adapt the system for custom-tailoring below the neckline. Just as people want to change their noses, mouths, or chins, many want to modify their hips and other parts of the body.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College