SoftBank has officially entered the metaverse with its latest investment. DNABLOCK, a 3D creation platform for virtual avatars, virtual worlds and other digital content, just announced a $1.2 million seed round from SoftBank's Opportunity Fund, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda and Spacecadet Ventures.
SoftBank's $100 million Opportunity Fund launched last June in a nod to the fact that Black, Latinx and Native American founders are woefully underfunded in the tech ecosystem. This marks the megafund's first investment in the metaverse.
But if you're unclear on what the metaverse is, you're not alone. Protocol's resident gaming and metaverse guru, reporter Nick Statt, gave me a helpful definition: "a next-generation version of the internet that's supposed to combine AR, VR, social networking, media, commerce, gaming and the web all into one big, pervasive network layer."
That layer lives on top of the internet and virtual worlds, like Fortnite and Roblox, are just one part of it, DNABLOCK co-founder and CEO Anthony Kelani told Protocol.
"But there's much more beyond just virtual worlds and I think it's going to transform a lot of different industries," he said.
DNABLOCK, however, is focused on the virtual world aspect of the metaverse. And in the near future, Kelani envisions that everyone will have an avatar to represent themselves in the metaverse.
That's why DNABLOCK is seeking to make it easier for people to design high-quality, custom avatars. The company also wants to help creators build virtual worlds with immersive experiences. Ease of creation is part of DNABLOCK's value proposition, Kelani said, and why he describes his company as "Pixar for the people."
DNABLOCK's main creation tool enables people to design photorealistic 3D avatars that they can control in a virtual environment. If folks want to create an avatar that is a replica of themselves, for example, they can just upload a selfie and get an avatar within 40 seconds.
The platform also lets creators generate additional cinematic content, including virtual worlds or even short films.
A still from a music video created using DNABLOCK.Image: DNABLOCK
For the past year, DNABLOCK has been in product development mode and has worked with a number of creators and companies to show the power of the platform, Kelani said. Soon, the plan is to fully open up the platform to independent creators and enable them to sell their creations through a digital marketplace. That marketplace will include 3D props, accessories and motion-capture data from professional dancers and performers, as well as other digital goods. Creators will also be able to publish their avatars and other creations to the metaverse.
"So overall, we allow people to build, perform and publish to the metaverse," he said.
SoftBank sees DNABLOCK as a potential leader in the creator economy because of its emphasis on making 3D creation more accessible at a time when there is high demand for customizable, user-generated content.
"With companies like DNABLOCK meeting that demand, anyone, at any skill level, will be able to easily participate in the Metaverse," SoftBank Opportunity Fund managing partner Shu Nyatta wrote in an email to Protocol. "It has the potential to be as disruptive as the Internet was – but beyond creating new spaces for us to connect with each other, it is also creating new streams of revenue. Already NFTs have taken off in the Metaverse, but we know it's going to get a lot bigger than that."
Kelani has been working on DNABLOCK since about 2017, long before the concept of the metaverse made its way into the mainstream. But Kelani said the increased visibility, in part thanks to Facebook, has been good for his business.
"It's been very helpful because I remember last year when I was talking to investors, I was talking about the metaverse and characters and stuff and no one knew what I was talking about," he said. "And then, now, 12 months later, everyone knows."
But in order for the metaverse to succeed, it needs more than just big tech companies and gaming companies involved, Kelani said. It needs creators.
"You can't have a Facebook or a game studio running the metaverse," he said. "It's not scalable. In order to achieve scale in the metaverse, you've got to have a community of independent creators."
And the only way to do that, he said, is by making it easy for anyone with a creative idea to contribute to the metaverse. That also means making it easier for people of color to participate in the metaverse and feel included.
"The metaverse needs to represent everyone," he said. "This needs to represent the world. And with avatars, specifically, you should be able to generate an avatar that looks like you or like someone of color. And what I've found is a lot of the avatar creators today just kind of skimp on that."