Podcasts

Genies built digital avatars for Justin Bieber and Rihanna. Yours is next.

Akash Nigam on the downsides of realistic avatars, self-expression and the metaverse’s booming fashion business.

Several digital avatars on a black background.

Genies started by building celebrity avatars. Now it's opening up to everyone.

Image: Genies

Who will you be in the metaverse? It’s both a surprisingly philosophical question and a potentially critical one for businesses everywhere, as they continue to design what virtual worlds look like and how we live inside of them.

Akash Nigam has been working on his answers for a while. As CEO of Genies, he’s worked with celebrities like Justin Bieber and Rihanna to create digital avatars they can use for album releases, commercial shoots and to generally be places they can’t physically go. Now, Genies is working on something much bigger: an open, decentralized avatar system that lets anyone build their own metaverse character, and then build a world around it.

Nigam joined the Source Code podcast to talk about how avatars should look and work, and why they’re such a powerful and important thing to get right. He also explained why he thinks digital accessorizing is going to take over the fashion industry, why he’s out on photo-realistic avatars, and why the long-term vision for Web3 is so much more exciting than the current state of things.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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The Genies story is such a Silicon Valley one: You were trying to do one thing, then pivoted and discovered a piece of it was what really worked. Can you give me the abbreviated history of how you got here?

The quick history is, I've been building since I was 14 years old. Bunch of different consumer and social apps and experiences. None of them worked, but the consistent theme was really trying to elicit authenticity. I always felt more comfortable behind the keyboard than in real life — just suffered from anxiety and depression my whole life. There's been so many iterations of different social apps that we build throughout our tenure, but the consistent theme has always been: How do you optimize social behaviors behind a keyboard? It just allowed me to improve who I was, and allowed me to have an outlet to be able to showcase some true sides of my personality.

And so eventually, I ended up stumbling across this concept of an avatar. And this was back in like, maybe 2015 to 2016. It really kind of grasped my heart because you could see for the very first time that it wasn't just photo, text and video, but that you can encapsulate every segment of your emotion and your personality in this art form. And I feel like some of the best ways to showcase your true sides of your personality is when it's not just on the nose. So you're not basically saying like, “This is exactly who I am, let me write a bio about it.” It almost feels too rigid. Whereas an avatar felt fluid, and it felt fantastical. And it felt like it didn't have to be confined by the physical reality of the current world.

Initially, the founding philosophy of the internet was to be exactly what you want it to be. And I feel like in the first couple of years, it did that for so many people. But then as it started to become more commercialized by the mainstream, it started to lose that effect. So our goal was to swing the pendulum back.

In the early days, you were making avatars for celebrities. That turned out to be the first thing that really caught on, and it seems like the music industry was the first place that really gravitated to this idea. Why do you think that is?

When we first launched and debuted our initial Genie, we were four kids in San Francisco. No Hollywood background, no LA tendencies. I didn't know what CAA even was. We had no intention of building it for celebrities or tastemakers out of the gates, which is like the classic: You build a product, you focus on this social use case, and you have no idea who your first audience is going to be and how they're going to manipulate your product in a way that maybe you weren't even thinking of.

And so we started seeing people like Offset from Migos, Shawn Mendes, Vine influencers back then like Cameron Dallas. The initial use cases were still hitting the funny bone that we were targeting, which is that an avatar is allowing you to be more of yourself, and almost be able to showcase a different side of your personality and be more vulnerable, which I think was the key.

The way that they were using it was to memorialize key life-defining moments, but it was also to showcase a different side of your personality. You had Jared Goff, who is obviously a professional. And he's a very serious person, because he's the face of a franchise. And sometimes he isn't able to show off his gregarious outgoing goofy wild self, right? His avatar can, though, and it kind of satiates that emotional need. So our first adopters ended up being, I think, tastemakers as a whole, not just artists. It was athletes, it was influencers, it was just people that were the entertainment segment. And I think it was because they are the most scrutinized demographic as it stands today.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Paris Hilton documentary —

I haven’t. I hear good things, though.

The whole concept is literally the fact that she goes through some shit, because she literally has to put up this narrative 24/7, and she isn't able to. That's not her, it's a whole act, right? And so the avatar offers you an outlet to actually be who you want to be without having to use your physical self that might be uncomfortable, unwilling or incapable of doing whatever your emotional soul wants to do.

If you think about artists as a whole, what their profession is, is making music. And music is an outlet, lyrics are an outlet for them to express emotional thoughts that their physical self maybe isn't able to. So I think they could relate to an avatar being an emotional outlet. And it doesn't have to be always an emotional topic, it could just be a topic that they find the avatar to be very fitting to be able to express.

That gets at one of the dynamics of this that I think is really interesting, which is this question of what a digital avatar is supposed to be. On the one hand, there is this sense that we're going to build increasingly realistic — and I use that word in every sense — versions of ourselves in digital spaces.

And then there's another school of thought that says basically, the promise of the internet is that we can be different things in different places, or we can express ourselves in ways that our physical bodies won't let us. That you should be somebody different on the internet than you are in real life. I was going to ask you, is the best possible future these photorealistic avatars that understand my facial expressions and everything else? And it kind of sounds like you're saying you’d go the other way.

Yeah, I was about to say, fuck no. I mean, that's my opinion. I think that’s a very near-sighted flash in the pan. That’s somebody that isn't studying the sociology, or understanding the true human needs of what people are desiring in everyday life.

I think people think that the avatar is supposed to replace the human entirely. And I joke about this: Unless Elon is coming out with Neuralink V5, and we're all going to be reincarnated as avatars and our human bodies are never going to exist ever again, our human bodies are always going to be an inherent part of who we are as a human. And so the avatars are here to amplify some of the serotonin releases that we experience in the physical world, and to maybe optimize for happiness.

It is going to be a balance. Look, this is coming from an avatar CEO: I think it's a very, very dangerous thing, that our avatars could offer almost too much of this outlet, and then all of a sudden, we have an identity crisis, right? So there will have to be a balance the same way that there's a balance you have to have with social media today. Social media doesn't replace exactly who you are in the physical world. But it does amplify different segments, and you get serotonin releases way quicker than you have in the past. And that's dangerous. And that's why you have to have a balance, and understand who you actually are. If you use social media the right way, it should be to feed who you are in the physical world.

Let’s say I really want a Luigi mustache. Is that physically impossible for me to do? Probably not, I can physically probably get that done. Do I want to do that in the physical world, do I feel confident enough to be able to do that all the time? No. Should my avatar be able to do that when I so choose, so I can put it on and take it off as I see fit, so it showcases some part of my personality? 100%.

You go up and down Sand Hill Road, they're going to ask you about photo recognition. They're going to ask you, “OK, how can I look exactly like Akash?” And it's like, dude, you're missing the point. That sounds good on paper, but you're not thinking deep enough. If you want something photorealistic, just use a profile picture. You're getting away from the power and potential of an avatar.

If you want something photorealistic, just use a profile picture. You're getting away from the power and potential of an avatar.

Tell me about the business model here. At first, you were sort of a bespoke avatar maker, hanging out with Justin Bieber, building his avatar. Now you're getting into digital goods for avatars. So, do you sell avatars? Do you sell stuff for avatars? Do you sell the tech to make avatars?

If you go back to our decks from 2016, we've been betting the business on digital goods from day one. We've never charged anybody for an avatar. It's always been based on, how can we allow people to utilize this persona so consistently that they build up this IP that matters to them, and then they can monetize it as they see fit through digital goods and wearables.

We just made an announcement just last week around ownership —

Yeah, can you explain that announcement? Because I think that’s instructive in what you’re talking about.

We decided that we wanted to be basically the first company from the centralized era to relinquish all of our control of our Genie avatars, and then also give the ownership to the user, the creators and the talent alike.

So that means if you come to Genies, and you create an avatar, you own that avatar. You can go make a business out of that avatar, you can make it a virtual influencer, you can create a digital wearable fashion line, and you own that IP. You can go ahead and monetize it as you see fit: If you want to use that avatar in a movie, we don't get involved in any of that.

We do have a smart contract, which is basically the bylaws and the constitution of the Genies ecosystem. And we will take a small primary and secondary cut, that is standard by any of the current projects that you see in the ecosystem today. But the ownership and the commercialization opportunities go to the owners, and the cuts will only come from any movement within the Genies ecosystem.

So for example, if you sell wearables within the Genies ecosystem, we’ll take a small primary cut. Right now we're focused on avatars and digital wearables, and empowering people to create each of their own. But over time — and when I say over time, I mean, like, literally this year and next year — being able to allow people to create their own spaces, their own worlds, their own interactive experiences, and it kind of evolves.

Metaverse actually equals freedom.

I feel like the successful companies, going to this next era of the internet and the web, are going to be the ones that define themselves as a tools company like we have, instead of all these incumbents which are not thinking about it the right way. They almost equate “metaverse” to mean “virtual.” And that's beside the point. Metaverse actually equals freedom.

I sincerely hope that the big-picture thought about metaverse equaling freedom is true. But I’m less and less convinced that that's the case, given the number of companies that are rebranding themselves after this stuff.

I agree with you that the majority of the companies out there are not taking that stance. But I think when it's all said and done, the winners will be the ones that are empowering the individuals. Because the whole point in decentralization, and going down this metaverse path, is to get away from what Facebook and all these incumbents stand for today, which is that you are beholden to their companies. You exist within their universe. The whole point is to be able to allow individuals to own their entire segment and individuality of who they are, and then also their respective creations. So we’ll ultimately see what happens. But I actually think we're going to be correct here.

Given that digital goods are an increasingly big part of your business, I'm curious how you see that space right now. So much of this is about investment and speculation right now, but do you see us getting to a point where the digital clothing industry maps one to one to how we think about the clothing industry in the real world? Where I'm going to spend money on stuff that my avatar wears? That doesn’t strike me as impossible, but it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet.

I'd argue it already does. I’m obviously talking from the perspective of culture, and then also Gen Z, so I'm talking about 13, 14 and 15 years old. And if I look at the amount of money that was spent on avatar digital wearables within Fortnite and Roblox, and I compare it to what they spend that year on their physical clothing, it's very, very close to one to one if not more.

If you're using your avatar in Fortnite, and you spend most of your time within Fortnite, and your friend group stays in Fortnite, then you're going to spend to accessorize your identity within Fortnite. Same thing in the physical world. Accessorizing showcases a side of my personality; I'm going to spend money on it.

Identity also doesn't have to just be an avatar; it can be in your estate — that's why I think virtual spaces are so cool. The second thing after your physical self that you accessorize is your apartment, your condo, your house, your dorm. It's just the ability for you to own whatever you have, and then show off different sides of who you are.

I think you are right, though, in that I don't believe in the majority of the NFT projects that exist today. Because I don't think it's taking a long-term approach. And I think it's just still working with the current liquidity that exists in the market today, versus trying to figure out how do we add more liquidity to the market itself, which means add wallets, add users, add new people.

To me, the biggest, most exciting version of all of this stuff that you're describing is that you have an avatar that is yours, that you can have lots of different places. If the future of the internet is lots of different platforms and different worlds you can be in, you can be yourself in all of those things. That is a vision that makes a lot of sense to me. It also seems that technically, that's nearly impossible. That you're going to have to build what amounts to a million different versions of your system to work with every other system that exists. Is that the future you see? Is that one that's possible?

Without revealing too much, I think the future is a mashup. This is what the decentralization, metaverse movement has done: It created a level playing field, which the incumbents don't like. But it allowed RTFKT to become the Gucci of the metaverse, which started threatening brands, because they're like, wait a minute, our IP and our brand equity doesn't matter in this digital world? It's like no, you have to reinvent yourself for the digital world. If you can't, you're fucked.

And so I feel like the incumbents have to do the same thing, which is very hard for them to do because it’s predicated upon a centralized model and advertising. And for that reason, I do think that the winners are going to be the ones that can figure out a loophole and can reconfigure the business to be more collaborative, to be more decentralized, to be more empowering of the individual. And those that don't will vanish. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen over time.

So with that being said, there's only really one way for everybody to be collaborative, at least with avatar portability. You have to basically have the standard template that everybody uses to port from one to the next, which is going to be kind of hard.

It feels a little bit winner-take-all, where you either build the universal standard or get stuck in one place.

That's why I think “portability” has been used way too casually. People that say portability, they’re just thinking too much about what exists today versus what portability could be tomorrow. And the way that I view portability of tomorrow is more around optionality.

What Genies will end up being is, we're going to give you tools to create your own Genies World in your own space that's going to be as collaborative as it can be with current ecosystems today, based on the technical limitations. But we're going to do it in a way that you can layer it on top of your Instagram feed, you can layer it on top of your Twitter feed.

I might go to your Twitter, I might see a Genies Home link there in your bio, I might tap on that link, and then all of a sudden, my Genies Home appears. That’s as far as we can go over the next couple of years. Until the VR code is cracked, I think portability is kind of neither here nor there.

I think VR is what will eventually be encompassing for everybody. And that will introduce a new standard, if there is going to be a new standard. Otherwise, there's just going to be a bunch of different environments that you can operate with.

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