A heritage website has found fame for its web app that can animate old photographs to bring the dead briefly back to life. But how effective and realistic is it?
Before I made the leap into full-time photography, I had begun experimenting with restoring and colorizing old photographs. Several decades ago, not long after my grandad had passed away, my mum bought a service at a local photograph development store. It increased the size of an old black and white photograph and then colorized it, so my mum paid for the shop to do this to her parents' wedding photo. I remember my grandmother being touched by it and her reveling in the extra layer of memory that color provided. I was impressed too, but while it was well researched and the colors carefully chosen (they had even found the correct colors of each of my grandad's medals that hung on his uniform he wore as his wedding suit), it wasn't well executed. Twenty years ago, I hadn't seen anything else like it, but as I learned photography, I realized it was no longer anywhere near the peak of what was possible.
So, for fun, I began to restore old images with damage and then colorize them. It turned into a small business swiftly, with friends and family wanting their treasured images restored for a glimpse into the past. Over time, however, I became aware of A.I. on the horizon, encroaching on my territory, and predicted it would equal human work in the near future, and so, I pulled away from the service. I was probably right, but my timeframes were wrong. However, we're starting to see what A.I. can achieve now, and a recent web app has gripped many through what it can do with precious family photos.
MyHeritage's 'Deep Nostalgia'
MyHeritage is, as it sounds, a company that helps trace family roots and the history your DNA can reveal. While doing that, they have developed various tools, like the aforementioned recoloring of black and white photographs. As far as I know, it wasn't setting the world alight, but their animation tool has come much closer.
I first became aware of Deep Nostalgia due to a compilation video doing the rounds on social media. It depicted various people using the service on pictures of past grandparents and then showing their parents (the children of the photographs' subjects) the animation. For a moment, people got to see their parents — of whom perhaps no video existed — brought back to life. The touching responses of raw emotion had me curious about three things: Was the reaction simply because it's a picture of their relative who has passed away? How accurate is the animation? And, how can I put it through its paces?
A Trial Run
My biggest surprise hit almost immediately. I had expected to have to get my wallet out to test this as I had with other A.I. software I explored, such as the impressive Remini; that was not the case initially. I believe you get 12 free goes at this service before they offer a free trial, which leads to a subscription; I will return to this later.
I decided to find an old photo of my grandad, preferably one that was clear and undamaged, but old enough that it would test what was possible. I chose this shot, which I uploaded in its oval form too:
I opened Deep Nostalgia and I uploaded the file. I had to wait for 30 seconds or so while it animated it, and then, it gave me the following video (which I converted to GIF):
It's undoubtedly impressive. The movement of the head is mostly natural, and there aren't many artifacts being left around the movement either, which is unexpected. There's something happening in the top left, but it's subtle. The eyes are well-executed too, albeit a little lifeless. I don't know how much to really expect of the software, but their expressions and eyes tiptoe on and around Uncanny Valley. As I'd never seen my grandad anywhere near that age, I sent the file to my mum to get her reaction. She seemed to be equally parts impressed and unsettled! That's about where I am too.
Pushing the Boundaries
Let's try another image, this time a female, but I'm also going to push it a little further. I'm going to give Deep Nostalgia an image of a distant family member that is one of the oldest photographs I have. If I remember correctly (the photograph is in my loft with the date written on the back) it was taken in the very late 1800s.
As you can see, it is faded, damaged, and lacking in detail, so it ought to be a challenge. The app appears to identify the face and then crop right in so it will avoid a lot of the battle scars of the photo.
There's no doubt about it: this is highly creepy. Nevertheless, it is impressive. It is, of course, a one-trick pony, but it's a good trick. It manages to give you some insight into a person you've never met, in a time you didn't live, without actually giving you any new information.
Using All Three Services
There are some more options that MyHeritage offers in addition to Deep Nostalgia's animation: they can enhance old photographs and colorize them. The Enhance feature is swift and loose, primarily increasing contrast and adding some sharpening. The Colorize feature is what you'd expect, with about the same accuracy as the other many services out there offering the same thing. So, let's see what a full workup does.
Enhanced by MyHeritage
Colorized by MyHeritage
Nan, I'm not sure blue lipstick works for you. I also highly doubt you would have ever worn it, so the algorithm has had a swing and a miss here, presumably with the clashing brightness in the jacket and lips. The hair and the suit look good, though everything else is a bit of a mess. The Enhance feature was useful, however. It does a good job of bringing out the features, though it isn't performing anything overly complicated to do so. Let's add the final step: Deep Nostalgia.
It certainly feels as if some photographs work well and some plunge deep into Uncanny Valley, with this above image being the latter. The first image, the one of my grandad, worked very well I think, but the other two have been a lot less lifelike.
So, I initially thought this was a free service that was there to lure people into tracing their family trees and sending off their DNA. However, after uploading my 12th test image (I had started to test what it could do with extreme examples, group shots, and so on), it offered me a 14-day free trial. It turns out that there was a sort of free trial to the free trial. The real free trial also offers access to the historical records database and other tools for searching your family tree, as well as unlimited animations through Deep Nostalgia. However, that subscription price is £226.80 ($314.47) per year, with a 50% discount for the first year (which is £113.40/$157.23).
It's a fun little tool that's interesting to test out, though certainly not worth the subscription cost in my opinion. It's a bit of a party trick, and I think it's almost outdated already. With how incredibly proficient deep fakes have become, I don't think it will be long before you can take old photographs of family members and animate them with greater accuracy and range of motion. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see what's possible already with old photographs and what direction it is going. Already, far more is achievable with very little information than ever imagined. There are photographs that work brilliantly with Deep Nostalgia, but it's more common your loved one is going to reanimate into some vaguely familiar CGI figure.
Have you tried Deep Nostalgia? What did you make of it?