Universal Tone: new AI-powered multi-skin tone imaging technology

This post is by Jose Antunes from ProVideo Coalition

Universal Tone: new AI-powered multi-skin tone imaging technologyUniversal Tone, from TECNO, promises to deliver a more inclusive smartphone imaging experience… no matter the colour of your skin, going further than Google’s Real Tone when it comes to the reproduction of skin tones.

AI trained to capture the beauty of the world’s diverse range of skin tones is what’s behind the technology announced by TECNO, a smartphone company whose name you probably see for the first time here. The company has worked with BBC StoryWorks, BBC Studios’ commercial content division, to present ‘Portrait for Everyone’, a compelling short film showcasing how TECNO Universal Tone technology revolutionizes multi-skin tone imaging to properly represent everyone in one picture.

The short film highlights the power of this, TECNO claims “advanced technology to deliver a more inclusive smartphone imaging experience, featuring insightful storytelling from the esteemed professors who partnered with TECNO to develop Universal Tone.”  TECNO is the second company to announce it is working to make a camera that is “more inclusive”, a goal introduced by Google three years ago, with its Pixel 6 series of smartphones.

In fact, with the launch of the  Pixel 6, in 2021,  Google set in motion the idea of “the world’s most inclusive camera”, promising smartphones able to better register dark skin tones. The AI powered technology, which is known by the name  Real Tone, has evolved in subsequent models, as Google continues to explore what has been a problem since the days of colour film: the difficulty in reproducing darker skins tones.

Universal Tone: new AI-powered multi-skin tone imaging technologyGoogle’s Real Tone started three years ago

Back in 2021, Florian Koenigsberger, Google Image Equity Lead, wrote this:

“Pictures are a big part of how we see each other and the world around us, and historically racial bias in camera technology has overlooked and excluded people of color. That same bias can carry through in our modern imaging tools if they aren’t tested with a diverse group of people and inputs, delivering unfair experiences for people of color, like over-brightening or unnaturally desaturating skin. We acknowledge that Google has struggled in this area in the past, and are committed to continuing to improve our products accordingly. As part of Google’s Product Inclusion and Equity efforts, our teams are on a mission to build camera and imaging products that work equitably for all people, so that everyone feels seen, no matter their skin tone.”

To solve the problem, “Google partnered with a diverse range of renowned image makers who are celebrated for their beautiful and accurate depictions of communities of color” to help its own team reach its goal. As the company increased the number of portraits of people of color in the image datasets that train its camera models, the improvements achieved lead to the technologies found in Real Tone.

Google continues to improve its Real Tone, and when this year launched the Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8, the company noted that “We’ve spent the last three years working closely with the global community of photographers and creators to make sure Real Tone accurately represents the wide range of human skin tones, especially darker ones, in photos and videos. This year we’ve expanded our efforts, bringing Pixel’s best-ever skin tone accuracy to video. And we’ve augmented flash to add Night Sight technology, so darker skin looks natural even in flash photos.”

Universal Tone: new AI-powered multi-skin tone imaging technologyRepresent everyone in one picture

While different “tests” published online suggest that “color accuracy” is more in the eye of the beholder than something that can be scientifically classified, the theme appears to start attracting the attention of other smartphones makers. Even if smartphone companies like Samsung or Apple do not appear to want to enter the discussion – and what about conventional camera makers? – a brand almost unknown to most people claims it has developed technology that revolutionizes multi-skin tone imaging: meet TECNO Universal Tone!

While Google’s Real Tone is designed to accurately represent the wide range of human skin tones, “especially darker ones”, according to Google, TECNO’s Universal Tone appears to have a broader range, as it “revolutionizes multi-skin tone imaging to properly represent everyone in one picture”, as suggested by the images shared by the company and the video itself.

Jack Guo, General Manager of TECNO, said: “From this thrilling film, we want to convey our mission behind Universal Tone, which is to redefine portrait photography, making it a truly inclusive and emotional experience. We aim to ensure that every individual, regardless of skin tone, feels seen and included through the lens of our technology.”

Universal Tone: new AI-powered multi-skin tone imaging technologyUniversal Tone, from TECNO

Shining the spotlight on the major challenges of portrait imaging, ‘Portrait for Everyone’ reveals how Universal Tone combines three powerful engines – Multi-Skin Tone Restoration Engine, Local-Tuning Engine, and AI-Powered Computational Portrait Engine – to address these hurdles with precision and finesse. For years, overexposed or desaturated images have failed to depict the true beauty of skin tone diversity, while AI promises much but is often trained with historically biased data.

‘Portrait for Everyone’ explores how portraits are not just visual; they are deeply emotional, resonating profoundly with people’s confidence in the psychological aspect. Therefore, creating technologies where everyone feels seen is vitally important. Professor of Psychological and Behavioral Science, Dr. Thomas Curran eloquently notes, “Our confidence and self-worth aren’t solely shaped by individual reflections, but also by how we perceive ourselves within a community. Authenticity in images helps maintain this delicate balance, grounding us in reality.”

Universal Tone: new AI-powered multi-skin tone imaging technology

TECNO partnered with Dr Kaida Xiao, associate professor in Colour and Imaging Science of University of Leeds and TECNO Technical Advisor, to create a better solution through creating a more inclusive color card. TECNO Universal Tone is, the company claims, “a most advanced AI-Powered multi-skin tone imaging technology that has been developed to meticulously understand and capture the beauty of the world’s diverse range of skin tones”.

Jack Qiu, Shaw Foundation Professor of Media Technology at Nanyang Technological University, and TECNO’s Advisor on Asian Skin Tone and Portrait Aesthetic, said: “By enriching the imaging capabilities of TECNO’s camera from this specific cultural dimension, we hope to add layers of emotional and aesthetic richness to every shot, making each one a mirror that reflects and respects its origin.”

Universal Tone, from TECNO, is not available on smartphones from the company yet, but it is expected to feature in new models, as the company suggests saying: “TECNO extends an open invitation to all, encouraging consumers to harness the power of Universal Tone for a future where the authentic self shines brightly and boldly.” Only then it will be possible to test the claims made by TECNO regarding this new AI-enhanced solution to reproduce skin tones.