Meet the startups creating 'high-fidelity' avatars to improve communication

“This tech appeals to a base human instinct: controlling and self-monitoring how people look at you,” Robby Ratan, a professor at Michigan State University told us.
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Dan Toomey, Itsme, Genies

· 6 min read

The image above shows three versions of me. One is a selfie and two are screenshots of animated avatars created using Itsme and Genies, companies that allow people to make digital versions of themselves. Genies’s cartoonish, swoopy-haired avatar is on the far right, and Itsme’s is in the middle with a more humanoid face.

These digital avatars don’t look like me, but they don’t...not look like me, either. They’re somewhere in the middle—which is right where their creators want to be. In the past few years, platforms like Itsme and Genies have raised millions of dollars in funding to be at the cutting edge of the digital avatar industry, which experts told us is a building block toward more lifelike digital communication.

“This tech appeals to a base human instinct: controlling and self-monitoring how people look at you,” Robby Ratan, a professor at Michigan State University whose work focuses on human-technology interaction, told us. “In the same way that we as a species have evolved to pay attention to fashion, we will glom onto the malleability of avatars—it’s the digital clothing.”

Digital me

While Memoji and other avatar-like characters are tertiary features in larger apps like Apple’s iMessage, Itsme and Genies treat them as the central focus. Both companies invite people to create digital avatars that feel true to their personhood. The process is simple: Pick physical features and other accessories that fit with how you want to express yourself.

“It’s not supposed to be a one-to one-representation of who you are in the real world,” Akash Nigam, CEO and founder of Genies, told Emerging Tech Brew. “It’s a fantastical representation of your personality.”

While Itsme and Genies both aim to facilitate digital self-expression, they go about it in different ways.

For Genies, the avatar you create is meant to travel as your alias through different spaces on the internet. At first, the company only made digital avatars for celebrities. But in October 2020, they released a development kit to allow other companies to feature Genies on their apps. So now, for example, you can create a Genie on a platform like Giphy and use it to create a gif, or have your Genie try on digital clothes in the Gucci app.

Meanwhile, Itsme avatars only exist within Itsme. They video chat and message with other avatars, but all within the confines of the app.

Of the two, Genies is the industry leader. The company started in 2017—three years before Itsme—and is far ahead in terms of both funding and partnerships. According to Crunchbase, Genies has raised more than $117 million so far. Their most recent round was a $65 million Series B led by Mary Meeker’s Bond Capital, and featuring digital-native companies like Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures.

Itsme, which rolled out in March 2020, is still in its early growth stages. In April it raised a $15.2 million Series A, led by Seven Seven Six—Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian’s venture capital firm.

When a user signs up for Itsme, they create a digital self and choose a list of topics that interest them, and the app then pairs them with others who share those interests. In April, Itsme said it has 4 million registered users worldwide, who spend a total of 2.5 million minutes video chatting with their avatars per week, and send 5 million messages across the platform every day. For context, eMarketer estimates that US adults spend 65 minutes on social networks each day. Genies didn't have substantial usage data to share because it's only been open to the public for around 6 months.

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"We want to continue creating the most expressive avatars and the best communication tools for meeting and growing friendships in the world,” Aakash Sastry, cofounder and CEO of Itsme, told Emerging Tech Brew.

Professor Ratan believes that these smaller digital avatar companies may eventually be swallowed by tech powerhouses like Amazon, Microsoft, or Facebook, who most likely will create the VR platforms that these avatars would thrive on.

What’s the appeal?

Sastry has been in the business of digital communication for a while. At age 16, he built his first tech company—a rudimentary video chat service. One of the problems, he found, was that many users felt uncomfortable being on camera.

Then, in 2017 he had a breakthrough. The idea for Itsme came from Sastry meeting his future cofounder, John Mullan, on a Reddit subpage dedicated to computer graphics. Without seeing what the other looked like, they became friends and soon wondered if that model could be applied to avatar-based social media.

“We wanted a creative way for people to meet online without having to feel anxious about their looks,” said Sastry. “Your avatar allows you to be much more expressive than physically possible and much more true than physically possible.”

Genies, meanwhile, began while Nigam was looking to pivot from the first company he founded while in college, at the University of Michigan. It was a group-chat app called Blend that failed to take off, but Nigam was inspired by the success of Bitmoji, and dove into the avatar business.

Sastry believes “high-fidelity, mobile, expressive avatars,” will be the future of human interaction because, “Artificial reality and virtual reality are going to be the default way that people meet in the future.” And that’s “meet” in any context: networking; finding new friends; and even, according to Nigam, going on dates. (“One thousand percent,” said Nigam, when asked if he would go on a first date with someone’s Genie as opposed to in person.)

Grace Ahn, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, told us there’s a misconception that the best human interaction is IRL. Ahn said that if we find ourselves interacting through virtual reality in the future— a bet companies like Facebook and Apple are both making—the ability to completely control the way we look would result in better, more genuine conversation.

“The drive will always be to mimic in-person interactions as much as possible. That realism is going to come from a representation of yourself through this virtual world,” Ahn said, “but do we want everything in the real world reflected in the virtual world?”

In fact, according to Ratan, producing avatars that are too realistic could be a turnoff.

“The uncanny valley seems to be universal,” Ratan said, referencing the effect where the more lifelike an artificial avatar, the less comfortable people will be with it. “You’re going to see companies like Itsme and Genies run into this issue.”

For their part, Nigam and Sastry both say they are committed to making avatars that look closer to how you feel than how you actually look. After all, that’s the key to connecting with them in the first place.

“We’ve almost gotten away from the founding philosophy of the internet, which is to be yourself,” said Nigam. “Kids don’t want photo recognition that takes all the flaws from their real world self—the point is you’re able to recreate yourself the way that you see fit.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.