How relevant are NFTs for digital fashion?

Selling virtual clothing is hot. And when selling digital items there’s a tendency towards doing this with virtual money and register the ownership in a virtual way, as an NFT on the blockchain. Storing ownership in a platform-independent way makes sense. It’s wise to choose a proof of ownership that will survive the inevitable disappearance or rebranding of various virtual fashion companies now active, but forgotten tomorrow. And there’s a lot that will change in the years ahead. We’ve been dressing our avatars for decades, but with AR glasses on the horizon, we’ll soon walk around like IRL avatars to be dressed up with virtual clothing.

With the transition from wearing virtual clothing in virtual worlds to wearing AR fashion in public space, the use of NFTs is a start. But there are a few more issues that need contemplation, and a fix.

Ownership

It’s clear why The Non Fungable Token market and the virtual fashion industry are a great match. Purchasing something unique what matters in the fashion world. But showing off your virtual possessions in the (semi-)digital realm is tricky. Someone else seeing you wearing your digital creations, sees them because they are rendered on their device. In theory, they could make a 100% digital clone instantly. That happened in metaverses of the past. To avoid unauthorized copying, it’s possible to show a lo-res version to the public eye. That might work for a digital NFT artworks you own, but it wouldn’t work for digital fashion. Would it be a pity to have paid a high price for an amazing digital outfit, and then not let it appears at its best, in hi-res?

Hacking and unauthorized copying

Assuming that you want others to see your virtual clothing, somehow their devices need to be able to render your outfit properly. You can send over the raw 3D files, if you thrust that there’s a proper DRM system that will protect against unauthorized copying. But as with any digital system, things can be hacked. If you really want to be safe, you could choose to give a person in front of you access to your private cloud rendering services. This person will send his/her POV data and the cloud will render your outfit accordingly, keeping the raw files safely away from the other device.

Fashion as a service

Letting digital appearances be rendered that way does make sense for another reason too. If you buy a digital outfit you don’t want to download the 3D files of the creation by following a link hidden in the NFT once you’ve bought it. You can expect them to be outdated very soon. Technical developments advance rapidly. What looks cool today, might look outdated within a year. It seems more likely that we’ll be purchasing digital clothes as a service. Ownership does not mean we own the files, but there’s a record in the blockchain that will prove our ownership or subscription to updates for a specified amount of time.

Communication

It’s often believed that these blockchain records will also be involved when our appearance will need to be rendered on the AR device of another person looking at us. The software on the other device can confirm if we do indeed have the right ownership records to let a certain outfit appear. But do we want to be transparent like that? While sharing our blockchain address so the other device so it can look up what we’re wearing, we might not want someone else to parse through our full blockchain-based inventory. So there’s a need for an anonymizer that safely communicates to another person what we’re wearing, without disclosing our fixed identity or blockchain address. A location-based digital fashion indexer might also be the way to bridge between various AR fashion apps. And if there’s confusion about which index to use to identify the other person in front of you? What if there are more, and if we’re in need of a meta-indexer? Or a meta-meta-indexer? Perhaps then it’s time for a manual fall-back, like this PIN filter-effect which you can operate with your body to indicate to someone nearby which out of 9999 is the outfit you’re wearing today. With a bit of practice this can work for some of us, but most of the time we will prefer to rely on an automated indexer.

Fashion NFTs

Indexers will access the NFTs and extract the pointer which refers to an outfit hashcode and the required fashion app or a compatible cloud rendering engine. In addition to that it might contain a reference to a datapoint where real-time dynamic data can be found about the current configuration of someones outfit. There’s no need to register any tiny change of data in the blockchain. Not everything is that relevant, it costs (virtual) money and you might not want to leave an exact trace of the times when you switched your outfit three times in one hour, perhaps even disclosing something about your mood switches that inspired the outfit changes.

Multiple AR fashion ecosystems

Considering there’s a wish to communicate our semi-digital appearance to another person, next comes the challenge to deal with multiple AR fashion ecosystems. How will digital outfits appear cross-platform, which means on another hardware device from another brand running different software and being connected to a different cloud? There are technical, practical and ethical aspects involved when arranging how we’ll appear in someone elses glasses, if we want that at all. The latter question is a question in which technical issues and personal preferences are intertwined. Even if certain tech possibilities are available, do we want to use them? Detecting who is in front of you can happen through software or hardware. It’s obvious that even though some technical solutions are available, they are not really an option, like massive face detection databases. Besides the unwanted solutions, there are solutions that are highly unlikely to ever get enough market reach.

Hardware/software compatibility

Will every device be equipped with the right hardware sensors, signal emitters and protocols? How many of us will start wearing an AR identification badge indicating their true or anonmized identity or current outfit? In an ideal world, everybody will has compatible hardware and software. But that’s not what we can expect. Instead, it’s more likely that there will be a battle to become the AR fashion monopolist. Hardware providers and apps will try to develop features that will distinguish them from the other players on the market. But that will lead to a complicated situation. In the AR future ahead of us, we’re not in disconnected metaverses. We might be in different semi-digital worlds, but we’ll be encountering each other in one single domain that corresponds to our physical reality. How to render each other when we meet on the street? Perhaps Big Tech (or the open source community) will succeed in developing a standard, with a feature set that is a common denominator. Which is usually a bit sad, as it will lack the device-specific features that some devices can handle because of certain sophisticated hardware. But even when the visual rendering quality will be interchangeable, there are still many ways for suppliers to offer unique services. For example by focussing on the ease of use, curated content or providing smart scripted AR fashion modules.

Future

With all of these different components and separate services such as cloud rendering, there will be a mesh of entities forming the mechanism that will visualize the future semi-digital world in front of our eyes. It will unavoidably be a very complicated domain with an variety of AR devices and incompatible software domains. And at the centre of that, there will be us, humans. With our inexplicable needs, fuzzy wishes, dislikes and stubborn brand loyalty.

Will there be one business that succeeds in developing a complete plan for the future of digital fashion, becoming the sole owner of the virtual fashion domain? Will that ever happen? Let’s not wait for that to occur. There’s no need to wait for companies that are waiting themselves. Awaiting the moment AR glasses will go mainstream, turning digital fashion into a mass market. Instead, a platform independent and future proof fundament for virtual fashion is being laid out thanks to blockchain technology and the NFTs. It’s being shaped in a bottom-up way, not owned and controlled by anyone specific, but by all of us. And that’s a very good way to organise something that might be part of our everyday life once we enter the era of AR wearables.

Sander Veenhof / hands-on futurist