Metaverse has now become a buzzword in our everyday lives, making its way into the shortlist of the 2021 Collins Dictionary Word of the Year. At the center of the metaverse are the ‘Avatars’ that inhabit these immersive virtual environments.
Neal Stephenson came up with the concept of an avatar-populated metaverse as early as 1992 in his science-fiction novel Snow Crash. By that time, the word ‘netizen,’ meaning ‘citizens of the internet,’ was almost a decade old. But avatars and netizens are conceptually very different. What makes avatars stand out from everything else in internet history is the potential to carve a unique digital identity.
Avatars: ‘Augmenting’ Real Life With Virtual Identities
Presently, we live in the Web2-enabled ‘Netizen-era,’ where users can represent themselves online through a user ID and a profile picture. For example, we use our email IDs to send emails from centralized service providers like Google and Yahoo. Sometimes we look for our friends’ names and profile photos on Facebook or Instagram to send them a message. But the scenario is changing very rapidly. There are now talks of an emergent Web3 experience where user IDs and 2D profile photos will eventually become obsolete.
With the advancement of technology, the Age of Avatars facilitates users to manifest themselves in the virtual world visually. Work-related email conversations are now accompanied by virtual conference calls with the employee-avatars in attendance. For example, Microsoft Teams enables the avatar feature for all virtual meetings where the 3D figures will represent the participants. Thus, avatars emerge as a digital identity, an extension of ourselves in the virtual space.
Identities are tricky, especially when internet users construct one for the digital domain. Will these avatars be authentic personifications of users’ offline selves or wholly new and different identities? Users will have various choices to create a digital identity. These avatars will become a conduit for seamlessly connecting real and virtual worlds.
However, avatars are not a means of ‘escapism’ from our living, breathing lives. On the contrary, they are an ‘augmentation.’ That is what researcher Tom Boellstorff had to say about the avatars while analyzing digital culture and community formation. The digital identities that these avatars create have the potential to take a life of their own, devoid of prejudices and bias. In some cases, they can open up new avenues of communication with diverse use-cases where differently-abled people can interact using avatars. For example, the documentary ‘Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me’ shows how users suffering from physical immobility or bipolar disorder represent themselves online. Documenting their journey in Second Life, the director shows how the avatars have helped differently-abled people to find their partners or interact freely in the metaverse.
As the examples mentioned above demonstrate, the potential use-cases of an avatar-enabled metaverse are enormous. On the one hand, it will pave the way for more immersive and interactive experiences in virtual conferences hosted on platforms like Decentraland. On the other hand, video games will become even better with advances in VR-AR technologies. Further expansion of the metaverse will also lead to a growth in virtual storytelling and digital celebrity culture. Moreover, some experts believe that avatars can become our personalized digital assistants, replacing Google Assistant and Siri.
Quite naturally, these avatars will eventually become an integral part of our everyday lives and define who we are. A big part of identity creation is how our friends, family, and colleagues see us in different social situations. Likewise, our identities depend on how we dress and present ourselves in front of others. Thus, even in constructing a digital identity in the metaverse, an avatar’s style plays a significant role in an authentic virtual representation.
We Are What We Wear: Avatars and Fashion
We usually do not wear the same dress to an office meeting, a weekend party or a sports tournament. Each place has a socio-cultural context, and we like to present ourselves appropriately in each of these spaces. Our avatars have diverse fashion needs that suit their identities and contexts in an ever-expanding metaverse. But a recent study by the Institute of Digital Fashion has demonstrated that 60% of people feel that virtual spaces lack inclusive fashion practices.
To carve out an authentic digital identity, customization of avatars is the most important requirement. In fact, 92% of the respondents proclaimed the importance of customizing their avatars to identify with them genuinely. Bringing humans into the metaverse and digitizing their identity for a genuine representation requires presenting them as organically as possible. Clothing and accessories are an indispensable part of this organic identity, and users take great care in deciding how to present themselves online. For example, 8.6 million Roblox users update their avatar’s clothing every day to express themselves online correctly.
Recently, a new blockchain protocol has been creating ripples in the market for facilitating digital identity creation through its avatar customization features. The Trace Network provides a platform to develop cross-chain personalized avatars that can function in multiple metaverses. These avatars can attend office meetings, play games, socialize in virtual spaces, attend concerts and do much more. Moreover, they can access an elaborate inventory of digital wearables and accessories from Trace’s Bling marketplace. These fashion products will help the owners present their avatars precisely the way they choose to.
Analysts predict that the metaverse has enormous growth potential and might become an $800 billion market by 2024. Avatars that make up these metaverses will play a crucial role in creating their digital identities in the virtual space. Digital fashion will contribute significantly to how users design and develop their avatars. Data suggest that in 2021, NFT wearables triggered $11 billion in sales in a single quarter. Platforms like Trace will further facilitate the growth of digital fashion and the metaverse industry in 2022.