With legions of current and former footballers now making money selling individual videos on Cameo along with other sports stars and celebrities (with “Inbetweeners” star James Buckley topping the earnings chart in 2020 with an estimated $415,000), many of us are well used to having famous faces addressing us directly on our phone screens.
But still, the sight of six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi looking up at you and saying “hey” is an arresting one, although all is not what it seems.
In partnership with potato chip brand Lay’s, the “Messi Messages” service allows fans to create and share their very own message from the Barcelona superstar — or rather a “face-mapped” version of him.
After entering a few pertinent details, the message is produced using advanced lip-synching technology from AI and facial mapping specialists Synthesia make it appear as though Messi is speaking directly to the recipient.
The resulting clip sees the Barca forward offer a personal greeting in a synthesised voice (which can be relayed in one of 10 languages) before inviting everybody to watch “the big match” together.
“Hey [insert name here], what’s up? [Insert name] has invited us to watch the big game on [insert day]. I hope I can make it. If I can’t be there, enjoy the game. Ah, and don’t forget to bring the snacks. Ciao!“
You’d think, being a multi-millionaire with an endorsement deal from a potato-chip manufacturer, Messi could offer to provide the snacks himself. But, as he can’t guarantee he’ll definitely make the watch party, it’s probably best to make other arrangements anyway.
While the technology is undoubtedly impressive, the end result is a video that sits within “uncanny valley,” where the effect is not quite realistic enough to be satisfying and can actually be a little unsettling.
And there is no scope at all to truly personalise the message beyond the limited options to select names and days. And even then, the list of names to choose from is simultaneously both arbitrary and carefully selected (there is no option to send a message to “Cristiano,” for example).
Which all makes sense, given the Internet’s fondness for abusing any invitation to contribute online to basically anything (Boaty McBoatface, anyone?).
Still, you can’t help but wonder what fans would like to hear Messi’s AI alter ego say if they had the power:
“Hey Cristiano, what’s up? UEFA has invited us to watch the Champions League quarterfinals together. I hope we can make it. Well, I know we can, because neither of us will be playing. Ciao!“
“Hey Xavi, what’s up? Did you hear I equalled your old Barcelona appearance record last night? 767 not out, and only 576 goals more than you managed. Ciao!“
“Hey Pep, what’s up? Sure I’d love to come join you at the Etihad next season. I hope I can make it. If I can’t be there, there’s every chance I’ll be in MLS instead. Ciao!“
“Hey Barca fans, what’s up? Sure I’d love to sign a giant contract that keeps me at the club until the day I retire. I hope I can find my pen. If I can’t be there, use the money to buy an entire new team. Ciao!“
“Hey Kylian, what’s up? Of course I’d love to see you at Barca next year. I hope it can happen. I might not be there, but you have fun carrying the whole club for the next two decades. Ciao!“