“What is your virtual identity?” If you haven’t had this question posed to you just yet, give it time. It may become as commonplace as “where are you from?” or “what do you do?”
The Rise of Avatars in the Metaverse
Just as we have social networking rose in prevalence in the early aughts, virtual spaces and the concept of the Metaverse have become commonplace over the last few years. Soon, digital avatars as cross-platform digital identities may be as ubiquitous as a Twitter handle or Facebook profile. In fact, several virtual social networks like VRChat, Rec Room, and cluster already allow users to interact through avatars.
However, there is one caveat here. As both Matthew Ball and Mark Zuckerberg have said, one essential element of the metaverse is interoperability, which according to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, is defined as “the ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information.” This feature allows different services, for example, Fortnite and Roblox, to share the same avatars, currency, and other digital assets.
But because information is still siloed, omnipresent digital avatars are yet to become the norm. However, there are a number of companies in this growing space that is looking to change that.
Genies founder Akash Nigam started the company when he was still a student at the University of Michigan, of which he later dropped out. Originally the social networking app Blend, Nigam pivoted the company to avatars and rebranded as Genies, Inc. when Snapchat’s Bitmoji was the talk of the town. At the time, Facebook, Apple, and Google had also jumped on the avatar hype in providing user avatar services. However, Genies attracted users with its customizability and emerged as the number one competitor to Bitmoji.
In the early days, Genies was intended to be the BuzzFeed of digital avatars, and marketed towards a younger generation. Using the 2D avatars that you created and animated videos that incorporated news recommendations based on Genies’ algorithms. However, the app was relaunched in 2018 with a sleeker, more sophisticated brand complete with celebrity collaborations and a major deal with Gucci.
Since 2020, Genies now supports 3D, and have been targeting what the company calls “Alphas,” the trendsetters and tastemakers of Gen Z, as well as celebrities and athletes, for various deals and collaborations.
One such example was Justin Bieber, who dropped his Christmas album announcement in November 2020 using a Genies avatar on Twitter. The video has over 435K views and counting. Bieber, an avid Genies fan, has also used his avatar for digital billboards in Times’ Square. Genies recently inked a deal with Universal Music Group—which owns labels like Capital, Def Jam, ROC Nation, and Motown—that provides UMG artists with their own Genies avatars.
One clear reason behind the success of Genies: social distancing. During the pandemic, celebrities who could not physically attend concerts and events used Genies avatars to interact with their fans.
The company also released an SDK in 2020 that allows Genies avatars to be used on more platforms and stated that they hope to form partnerships on more platforms.
Ready Player Me (Wolf3D)
Ready Player Me is an avatar tool developed by Wolf3D, an Estonian-based startup founded in 2014. Over the past seven years, Wolf3D has scanned and registered approximately 20,000 people to its database, and has continued to develop selfie-based digital avatar technology.
This led to the development of Ready Player Me, a core technology that allows users to easily create avatars based on a single selfie that is “transportable” between all the games they have existing integrations with. As of July 2021, their avatars can be utilized in over 260 games and apps.
It’s interesting to note, however, that unlike Genies’ highly customizable interface, Wold3D’s virtual versions of ourselves actually mirror our real-world… selves, as they are created via a photograph.
Their long-term goal, Wolf3D says, is to make its avatar tech “a link between many different virtual experiences, adding them together into one big virtual world that you can explore seamlessly with your avatar and the same set of friends.”
Founded in 2020, by Benoit Pagotto, Chris Le and Steven Vasilev, RTFKT is a brand that focuses on digital fashion. Though the company is just a year old, they’ve already made quite a splash when they made USD $3.1 million in just seven minutes from the sales of 608 minted virtual sneaker NFTs they created with digital artist FEWOCiOUS.
Recently, they created a 3D avatar called “CloneX” as a collaborative NFT with Takashi Murakami. The founders of RTFKT have said that they are currently working on making these digital items available for Fortnite and other games.
Clearly, their vision hasn’t been lost on retailers either. On December 13, 2021, Nike made headlines by acquiring RTFKT in a deal where the terms were undisclosed. “This acquisition is another step that accelerates Nike’s digital transformation and allows us to serve athletes and creators at the intersection of sport, creativity, gaming and culture,” says John Donahoe, President and CEO of NIKE, Inc.