"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all," asks the wicked stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The magic mirror did not lie, but now Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers have developed a software that can make plain looks seem as good as that of a queen.
While its output is currently limited to digitised images, the software may be able to guide plastic surgeons, aid magazine cover editors, and even become a feature incorporated into all digital cameras.
"Beauty, contrary to what most people think, is not simply in the eye of the beholder," said researcher Daniel Cohen-Or of TAU Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences.
"Beauty can be quantified by mathematical measurements and ratios. It can be defined as average distances between features, which a majority of people agree are the most beautiful," said Cohen-Or.
"I don't claim to know much about beauty. For us, every picture in this research project is just a collection of numbers."
In his study, published recently in the proceedings of Siggraph, an annual computer graphics conference, Cohen-Or and his graduate student Tommer Leyvand, with two colleagues, surveyed 68 Israeli and German men and women, aged 25 to 40, asking them to rank the beauty of 93 different men's and women's faces on a scale of 1 to 7.
These scores were then entered into a database and correlated to 250 different measurements and facial features, such as ratios of the nose, chin and distance from ears to eyes. From this, the scientists created an algorithm that applies desirable elements of attractiveness to a fresh image, according to a TAU statement.
Unlike heavily processed Photoshop images that can make magazine cover models and celebrities unrecognisable, TAU's "beautification engine" is much more subtle.
Observers say that the final image it produces retains an unmistakable similarity to the original picture. Well - in most cases. There is one circumstance where Cohen-Or's beauty machine doesn't work like a charm: when a celebrity's face is changed.
"We've run the faces of people like Brigitte Bardot and Woody Allen through the machine and most people are very unhappy with the results," he admitted.
"But in unfamiliar faces, most would agree the output is better."
Cohen-Or now plans to develop the beauty machine further - to add the third dimension of depth.