Deep Nostalgia uses AI to bring old photos to life — and it’s freaking us out

Deep Nostalgia MyHeritage photo animation
(Image credit: MyHeritage)

A new photo-animating tool is using AI-powered ‘Deep Nostalgia’ tech to bring the past to life. And after giving it a try, I’m seriously freaked out by it.

The Deep Fake-style tool from online genealogy company MyHeritage takes your old photos and uses machine learning to animate facial expressions and movements in a truly uncanny fashion. You can then download the 10-20 second videos and share them with your family. 

I tried it out on a childhood photo of my mother — with her permission of course; this kind of tech has the potential to upset people, so I’d always advise checking before you use any image, particularly if the person in question has passed away.

The service is super-easy to use. Simply head to the MyHeritage Deep Nostalgia page then click on the Upload photo button, or drag and drop your image across.

The AI will then take around 20 seconds to work its magic on the photo, before presenting the finished result for your amazement. And yes, it really is amazing. And creepy. At the same time.

I never knew my mother as a child, obviously. But the clip below does an uncannily good job of showing me what she was like — far more so than a static photo could. 

I then tried it out on a photo of myself from my younger days. Here, the AI appeared to get a little tripped up by my eyes, which slightly lessened the impact while increasing the creepiness factor. There’s definitely something of Harry Potter’s moving portraits about it.

You can even use the tool on a photo with multiple people in it. The tech will analyze the image, then ask you which face to animate. Here I am as a baby; cute, hey? You can just see my mother in the background — the AI has successfully animated me, while leaving her static.

The service is initially free to use, so long as you sign up for a MyHeritage account. That’s as simple as inputting your email address and a few other details, then agreeing to the MyHeritage terms and conditions. 

The free account only lets you animate five photos, though, and also includes a watermark on each video. Sign up for a Complete account — currently $16.58‎ per month — and you’ll get unlimited access to the tool, and watermark-free downloads.

The tech behind the Deep Nostalgia tool is the work of D-ID, an Israeli company that specializes in “Reenactment technology”. MyHeritage previously used it to animate a photo of Abraham Lincoln. 

It uses real human gestures, captured from MyHeritage employees, to animate the photos, and the company points out that the end result “is not authentic, but rather a technological simulation of how the person in your photo would have moved and looked if they were captured on video.”

It also cautions that “Depending on the video and the angle, the technology sometimes needs to simulate parts that do not appear in the original photo, such as teeth or ears, and the quality of the end result may vary.”

The tool has quickly gone viral in the few days since it launched, with predictably mixed reactions. As MyHeritage itself says, “Some people consider the Deep Nostalgia™ feature to be magical, while others find it creepy and dislike it.”

I’d say it’s both magical and creepy. There’s no doubt that there’s some seriously clever tech behind it and the end results are fascinating. But it is also unsettling seeing something that you know isn’t real but that looks so lifelike. 

If you fancy giving it a try for yourself, head to the MyHeritage site.

Marc McLaren

Formerly Editor in Chief (U.K.) on Tom’s Guide, Marc oversaw all gaming, streaming, audio, TV, entertainment, how-to and cameras coverage, and was also responsible for the site’s U.K.-focused output. He is now U.K. Editor in Chief on TechRadar. Marc previously edited the tech website Stuff and has tested and written about phones, tablets, wearables, streaming boxes, smart home devices, Bluetooth speakers, headphones, games, TVs, cameras and much more. He also spent years on a music magazine, where his duties mainly involved spoiling other people’s fun, and on a car magazine. An avid photographer, he likes nothing better than taking pictures of very small things (bugs, his daughters) or very big things (distant galaxies). When he gets time, he also enjoys gaming (console and mobile), cycling and attempting to watch as much sport as any human can. He's also fallen in love with Wordle over the past six months and is the author of our today's Wordle answer column, in which he supplies hints and strategy tips for the mega-popular word game. Given he's completed every single Wordle so far and only lost once, and analyzed every Wordle answer in search of patterns, he's well qualified to help you safeguard your streak.