Over the past year or so, next-gen avatars becoming mainstream has gone from science fiction to a probable future. While previous avatars were digital characters controlled via input devices in worlds like Second Life, I define next-gen avatars as digital assets that are manipulated mostly in real-time from physical beings (a la Animojis). These avatars will be manipulated today mostly at the head/face level, but will eventually bridge to the full body.
The emergence of next-gen avatars has been driven by the proliferation of components like the depth sensing camera in the iPhone X and better edge compute for real-time face tracking. These have given birth to things like Animojis and Memojis, and have put real-time mobile face tracking + modification on a path to widespread availability.
But how can this new form of human expression and interaction manifest itself in society? What questions must be answered? What should startups do to be the ones to make that happen?
Avatars as the new identity layer vs. reaction layer.
I don’t believe that one can build an avatar-first product without having a clear view on which layer they are enabling.
The identity layer can be put simply as the visual manifestation of names. Whether the user chooses to personify their real selves (@mhdempsey) or create a new identity that is far abstracted from their physical identity (@StartupLJackson) is a personal choice.
The identity layer will have an avatar (or set of avatars) that connects a “real world” identity to a digital world identity (or identities). In this case, customization, diversity of the avatars, and ability to express yourself in real-time are incredibly important, with UGC likely to create a form of digital economy network effects.
The Reaction Layer is the next visual manifestation of Gifs. Gifs have risen to prominence as understood social interactions and reactions, but aren’t directly tied to an individual. The first iterations of Animojis were reaction layer avatars. What Apple is now trying to do with Memoji is a simplistic version of the identity layer where one human creates one lifelike digital avatar of themselves.
While the reaction layer seems more likely to live on in a world where large platforms have a stranglehold on identity, I am more interested in the identity layer and its ability to enable new platforms.
This isn’t to say that we can’t have both, but my view today is that the more valuable company starts as one that builds a product where a digital representation of ourself (or ourselveS) is customizable, carries brand value, easily manipulated, and creates a sense of an emotional tie between the human and the avatar. This feels most likely to happen if you also control a key platform component at the beginning.
The platform then allows that users digital identity to create defensibility once technology commoditizes and incumbents move into the space. It also tells the mainstream consumer what to do with their avatar (more on this later).
Whether you eventually open up your avatar identity layer, similar to how Facebook opened up “sign in with Facebook”, is a decision that can only be done from a position of platform strength.
The identity layer also has a more clear direction in which an economy emerges around it. If you own an avatar-first platform, you can control or profit from the surrounding industries such as digital fashion and accessories, voices, and perhaps even worlds that emerge.
Avatars & Social Limits
The identity layer allows us as a society to potentially push social barriers or sidestep social biases that we haven’t previously been able to.
In all other forms of digital media we have figured out ways to target our audiences based on various demographics, and then A/B test our content with those audiences. Avatars enable this to extend this malleability to humans.
For example, a talented entertainer may only be able to be accepted by a single core audience, whether due to their sex, race, or other biases that exist. With a collection of avatar-first identities, the entertainer could possibly expand their audience outside of their physical limitations.
These types of dynamics could extend to simple social media, journalism, and even in some dystopian futures, politics (as depicted in Black Mirror).
But before we get ahead of ourselves, what does an avatar-first product need to look like in my mind?
Avatar-First Product Thoughts
Across the 20+ face filter/avatar apps I’ve seen, the usage seems to be fairly similar. The filter/avatar is either used as a cherry on top of a social interaction (think Snap filters), or as a funny experience that people churn from after 10–30 minutes (Animoji Karaoke). The reality is, people don’t know what to do with their digital selves.
Those creating avatar-first products must push users towards specific interactions or use-cases, and then leave the door open for emergent behaviors.
Live streaming is an area I’m incredibly intrigued by, and other forms of social media storytelling feel like obvious use-cases, but at first it’s quite possible the product must be even more focused than these examples. I’ll leave out anything specific so as to not step on any toes.
How should we describe Avatars?
When talking about allowing someone to create a digital and visual manifestation of themselves online (and perhaps someday in the real world via augmented reality) there’s a tendency to push users towards the aspirational and use words like “beautiful” or “cool”. This is dangerous.
Avatars will face mainstream backlash and the proliferation of them will have a dark side related to the same vanity we experience today surrounding social media. Because of this, in the earliest days of avatar-first products, the focus should be around what an avatar enables in a positive light (self-expression, confidentiality, choice) vs. what an avatar fixes, improves, or how how it makes us better than our real world selves.
In addition, the idea that an avatar can take on a life of its own in the real world feels incredibly significant (one could argue this is what has happened with some digital celebrities that are controlled by a single person). If the internet views widespread avatar creation as a tool specifically for anonymity, we could suffer the same fate as other platforms that have brought out the worst in people due to lack of accountability.
Design vs. Technology
There are elements of technological innovation that could result in a better avatar experience, such as tech to allow better interactions or avatar quality, however similar to many consumer apps, technology is not the vector that this battle will be won on.
While admittedly obvious, I believe that product focus that ushers in a new behavior or interaction, paired with an ecosystem that allows for a continually fresh experience and form of expression is what will win.
I’m still thinking through many moving parts of avatar-first product development and implications, but this post outlines my current state of mind. In meetings over the past few months with founders, product people, and engineers across avatar startups, media companies, and social platforms I found myself repeating these sentiments, so I figured them best to be published and picked apart on the internet.
As usual, if you’re working on anything in this space, DM me on twitter or email me at mike (at) compound (dot) vc .