Lensa app generates AI avatars for sharing. Here’s what artists say.

It’s the tool transforming your friends into superheroes, astronauts, ethereal fairy princesses, and anime leads.

Lensa, a popular app that uses AI technology to morph photos into stylized art, has surged in popularity over the last few weeks, thanks to its new viral “magic avatars” feature. Users began posting their elevated selfies on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. The hashtag #Lensa has more than half a million posts on Instagram as of Monday. The app was downloaded 1.6 million times in November, up 631% from October.

The spike has prompted the latest discussion surrounding art that’s created by artificial intelligence — which comes with its own pros and cons, artists say.

Here’s what you need to know.

Lensa AI is one of several artificial intelligence image generators that lets users create and post artistic renderings of their own photos. The app has been around since 2018, but the “magic avatars” feature drew new interest.

The app works by transforming user-uploaded photos into as many as 200 avatars. Lensa uses Stable Diffusion, open-source artificial intelligence that can generate images from text prompts, to make its renderings look like they were created by an artist — not a computer.

Here are the basics:

  1. Lensa costs about $30 annually (a one-week free trial is available). Access to the “magic avatars” feature costs an additional $4 to $16 depending on the number of images you want.

  2. Users upload 10 to 20 photos and select their gender as “male,” “female,” or “other.”

  3. After selecting the number of photos and paying, the app takes 15 to 20 minutes to generate the images.

  4. Once they’re ready, avatars are available to save and share. They come in categories including options like Kawaii, Fairy Princess, and Stylish.

As AI art becomes more accessible, users say curiosity draws them in.

Ryan Evans, a New Jersey-based artist who works in Philadelphia, downloaded Lensa to try for himself.

“My narcissistic ass couldn’t stay away,” he said. “I had to spend the $3.99 to get 50 very bad illustrations of myself.”

Evans recognizes the allure tools like Lensa has and says he has been playing with the app.

“I think it’s just another fun tool, honestly,” he said. “It helps me generate things I would normally never be able to on my own. Things like muppet creations, distorted 3D versions of my favorite characters, etc.”

Evans said he doesn’t use AI apps much these days, but called it “addictive” at first.

As noted by Refinery29, the majority of widely shared Lensa avatars have been posted by white influencers.

But the app has also become a source of affirmation for people — especially members of the LGBTQ community — who experience body dysmorphia or want to see a version of themselves that feels more authentic. It has also become a way for people to experiment with their image — like with different hairstyles — before committing to a real-life change.

Before Lensa’s recent jump in popularity, other artificial intelligence platforms, like DALL-E, made their way into the mainstream.

DALL-E — which experienced its own trending period on social media earlier this year — lets users describe what kind of art they’re looking for in 400 characters or less. From there, the generator spits out its interpretation. On Twitter, users posted some of their prompts and the weird and wonderful results.

From “a wise cat meditating in the Himalayas searching for enlightenment,” to “A rabbit detective sitting on a park bench and reading a newspaper in a Victorian setting,” possibilities seem endless.

In turn, the tools are expanding and developing.

Kingsley Spencer, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based creative director and designer, says that AI generators are getting smarter the more they are used.

“Over the next 12 to 18 months, we’ll spend or time finding out the best ways to use these tools to our advantage while feeding their data sets the most honed, strategic inputs possible,” he said.

But as the generators become stronger, Spencer said, they can potentially put creatives out of work and devalue their time and labor.

“Once their models are trained up enough to think like us — as in, the people usually hired to do creative thinking — they can sell products and services that more or less replace us,” he said.

Critics of Lensa and other apps that feed from open-source AI say the platforms used nonprofit loopholes to access thousands of real images and photographs while profiting from the results. For example, Dall-E reportedly used the stock art service, Shutterstock, to train its AI.

To illustrate how quickly artificial intelligence services can crank out art compared to human artists, Evans used Dall-E to create an illustration for this article.

“I used a combination of detailed phrases, like ‘3D sculpture, digital menacing face, Frankenstein, neon green glowing, computer rendering photorealistic on a white background,” he said. “Programs like DALL-E tend to function better with longer, more convoluted phrases.”

After about 15 attempts stringing the terms together to get a style that matched his vision, Evans received a 3D rendering of an eerie green face with sunken eyes. He inputted that into Photoshop where he added some signature touches, including a binary Matrix-like code and colorful smiley face stickers, “to bring back the handmade touch only we can accomplish.”

The whole process took Evans a little over an hour. Without AI, he said, that time would have easily been tripled.

Evans says it’s important for non-artists, especially companies looking to commission art, to consider the source of the product.

Beyond the risk of replacing artists, AI interest has also prompted privacy concerns.

Some users worry about how their images will be used, mirroring the concerns raised in 2020 over FaceApp — a Russian app that used AI technology to create the then-trending photos of people aging.

According to Lensa, the photos are “immediately” deleted from its servers after the avatars are finished. The app’s privacy policy says it does not claim ownership but seeks permission to use user content.

At the end of the day, Evans says, “there will be companies and artists who use AI poorly. There will also be people who see it in a fun and interesting way. I just hope we’re all able to remember the difference.”

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