Genies has built technology for creating expressive digital avatars for everyone from rockstars who want to give online concerts to influencers who can’t go to in-person meet-and-greets anymore. Now the company is launching Humans, an investment arm that will back projects using the company’s avatars.
Genies will target companies that benefit directly from its avatars — animated characters whose actions mirror those of a human — to foster connections even when physical interaction is limited. Genie’s cartoon-style technology comes from the avatars you see in games, but they’re being used for mostly non-game applications.
This kind of tech could also prove helpful in the eventual creation of the Metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. And it’s part of the trend toward virtual beings, or digital versions of real people. (FYI, I’m going to speak at the next Virtual Beings Summit on July 15).
Humans has already invested in multiple companies, including Zebra IQ and Leaftail Labs.
Genies announced separately that Pokimane, a popular influencer whose real name is Imane Anys, has invested in the company. Other investors include Thomas Tull, Jim Breyer, NBA star Victor Oladipo, musician Yoshiki, investment firm L Catterton, CAA, and New Enterprise Associates. Genies has raised $40 million to date.
Digital twins for celebrities
The pandemic has created more demand for Genies avatars because celebrities can’t go to physical events, which are often high-paying gigs to promote brands or products. With Genies, the celebrity can make a guest appearance in a fun way, in contrast to a typical Zoom presentation from home.
About 100 of Genies’ celebrities recently banded together to support the CDC Foundation and create awareness of its relief fund efforts. The campaign reached nearly a billion views. Genies’ celebrities also launched educational videos on behalf of the World Health Organization. And musicians Offset and Billy Ray Cyrus have used their Genies to promote wearing masks during the pandemic.
Genies is preparing to release its 3D avatars that build on top of the 2D, cartoon-style avatars it already has in the market. The company will release a software development kit (SDK) so developers and businesses can create avatars themselves and implement tools to monetize the avatars. It is also going to release its own avatar social network, where people can talk to each other through the avatars, sort of like what you see with avatars in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Genies cofounder and CEO Akash Nigam said in an interview with GamesBeat. Going beyond celebrities and athletes, Genies is going to be available for consumers to use this year.
“We’ve done a lot of celebrities, and this year we’re trying to really bring that to consumers,” Nigam said. “We have streamers [like Pokimane] investing in our company to bring this to life. And we are investing as well in startups that can use us.”
“When I came across Genies, I knew the avatars would be a success,” Pokimane said in an email. “As we continue to see more of our everyday lives go digital, it makes sense to have a personal avatar that can show up on your behalf and is unique to you. Avatar creation has always been a staple in the gaming community, so I’m excited to see Genies take it mainstream.”
How it took off
Nigam and Evan Rosenbaum started the company in 2017. Genies released its initial avatars a couple of years ago. In 2019, it managed to sign up celebrities, mainly because it saved them time and made them more money.
Genies creates the avatars and sends a few options to the celebrity or brand for approval. It doesn’t aim for exact replicas of people, but it tries to do more accurate representations than 2D characters created by Bitmoji as stickers or still images for smartphone messages.
“The reason this worked is celebrities only have so much time in a day to achieve their main career goal,” Nigam said. “We want to provide them with twice the amount of time, where we clone their human form and use our technology so they can promote themselves. They can do this and be extremely efficient with their time. In the past, Kyrie Irving would have to leave the basketball court to do a photo shoot. With us, he could represent a brand and make money without leaving the basketball court.”
Genies’ Avatar Agency now has more than 2,000 celebrities and influencers using the avatars to communicate with followers and partner with brands. And Genies says it will offer its investment portfolio companies access to its proprietary SDK that is set to launch this fall.
Genies has partnered with brands including Gucci, New Balance, Bird, the NFLPA, MLBPA, NBPA, CDC, World Health Organization, and Frito-Lay, as well as celebrities and influencers such as Jennifer Lopez, Offset, Shawn Mendes, Rihanna, Russell Westbrook, DJ Khaled, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Kyrie Irving.
“We basically represent in digital avatar form the top 500 celebrities, and we represent every single major athlete in digital avatar form,” Nigam said.
To pull off an avatar-based promotion, a celebrity like Irving has to send their voice to Genies, but then the company takes over and matches the audio to the avatar’s animated presentation. That’s a big help for something like the WHO event, where it would have been tough to get 100 different celebrities together in one place, especially during lockdown.
Better still, in the majority of appearances, the avatar is all that’s needed. So Genies doesn’t have to track down the celebrity to get a voice recording, as the avatars often live on image-related social networks like TikTok or Instagram.
Humans’ investments will be overseen by Nigam, with the aid of a committee that includes Genies cofounder Evan Rosenbaum and Genies executives Jake Adams, Allison Sturges, James Andrews, Izzy Pollak, and Jake Becker. They will work with the selected startups to support them and enable them to use social technology effectively.
“The point of an avatar is really to be an aspirational version of you,” Nigam said. “It’s not to be a one to one representative. So if you look at some of the best avatars on market, or the way that people use avatars, they’re definitely not making a one to one comparison of who they are in real life. They are almost trying to express who they really are on the inside, and get back to their authentic, honest, true feelings. And so they’re using [the] avatar as a medium of expression. And so we don’t want to go the hyperrealistic route.”
Nigam hopes that avatars will one day be part of the Metaverse. (We’re pulling together a conference on that subject.) But he thinks that is still a few years away.
“My gut says we are closer than ever, but it is still like three to five years away,” he said. “There has to be some transition period going to a full-blown virtual world. And so I believe that avatars are the next big social wave. The world of Ready Player One is inevitable, and it resonates with us. We’re trying to create technology that is valuable right now. Especially in a world where people are starving to socialize.”
Genies is based in Venice, California and currently has 40 employees.