🌐 1 Minute in the Metaverse 🌐 Pioneers of the Open Metaverse
About the guest:
Timmu Tõke is the CEO at Ready Player Me, which allows users to create avatars and travel between video games and virtual experiences using a single, consistent identity — one’s passport to the metaverse.
How did it all start with Ready Player Me?
I grew up in a small city in Estonia, and RuneScape was my favourite game. I played it a lot — which was my first intro to the metaverse or virtual worlds. It led me to explore more things in gaming and experiment with 3D printing and scanning.
When Oculus was acquired by Facebook, we realized that avatars are going to be a very big part of these platforms. So we decided to build a solution for anyone to create an avatar by scanning themselves for VR. It all started with hardware — we built big scanners that could scan tens of thousands of people and then developed a deep learning solution that took a single selfie and converted that into different styles of avatars.
That became a business — we sold that SDK to big enterprise customers like Tencent, Huawei, HTC, and many others. Our goal was to democratize avatar creation. SDK is how we got in, and then created customized avatar systems around it. Doing it in that order taught us a lot about the types of solutions a developer would need.
That’s where Ready Player Me came from — building an avatar system that any developer can easily integrate. While working on that, we were able to unify the avatar layer across many different games and worlds, which made it easy for end users as well to travel across these words.
This is where your idea of the “passport of the metaverse” comes from — which is about interoperability. Some would say that we’re miles away from the vision of an interconnected metaverse. RPM seems to be proving the contrary.
There’s 1400+ companies using our solution already across the metaverse: for games, virtual worlds, events, etc. Which enabled us to create the unified system I just mentioned. So indeed, it’s actually possible to create an avatar that goes from one game to another, even if the file formats and the game engines are different — we can make that happen because we built this system, it’s our standard.
In the general industry, the problem is that people are thinking of solutions that are universal. Like, let’s create this magical file format that will solve the problem. There are a lot of issues with that approach, both technical and business wise.
We’re controlling the experience from end to end. That is why we are able to provide real interoperability of avatars and NFTs already today before it’s possible anywhere else.
Still, the environment where you place the RPM avatar needs to be visually compatible with the look of the avatar? That’s one of the challenges, right?
If you want interoperable systems, there need to be some trade offs. One of which is the visual style.
There are some big games that I’ve been trying to experiment with lately, like Fortnite, who brought in realistic Ferrari models and some anime characters that are completely different from the original style of the game to show that it’s possible — and it will be.
Still, there is always going to be a trade off compared to building an entire avatar system from scratch. For some platforms it makes sense to have full control over avatar creation. Think of some movie-like, narrative-driven experiences where you’re fully immersed in the story. But there’s other places where you go there to meet your friends — to go to a concert, play games, and so on — there, a consistent avatar is useful for you to be recognised in a social setting. And those places are generally for a more general social media audience, with a more general aesthetic. That’s why we’ve seen 1400+ companies sign up and use RPM avatars as they are in their worlds that are obviously diverse in style.
Would you say that the amount of partners that RPM has testifies to a shift from mentality towards a more open web ecosystem?
100%. The mentality is really changing. In the gaming industry as well — we see that with crypto gaming, this web3 mindset of building a more connected and open metaverse.
I think for most of the virtual world to become open, the small part that becomes open first needs to be strong enough to show the rest of the world that this is the way to build things.
We won’t get there immediately. For platforms like Fortnite that make $2 billion per year, it doesn’t make much business sense to open up their ecosystem today. But if there’s The Sandbox and other open worlds, and us, showing that interoperability is the way and it’s actually a better business and user experience for everyone involved, then the big ones will follow as well, and we will all have a more connected and open virtual world. But it needs to be an obviously practical thing for people to do before it can happen at scale.
What do you think then drives the creation of the metaverse? Is it just practicality? Or is there some existential dimension here too?
The same thing that drives the creation of any new market or system — it’s more efficient. It enables you to communicate virtually, you don’t have to travel and can have a more immersive experience with people online. It’s a better user experience, which solves a problem or two for a lot of people. That’s what creates the market. The technology wasn’t there before too — and is still limited.
I am personally very much philosophically aligned with the open metaverse and want it to happen.
That’s why we’re building RPM — to demonstrate real interoperability of avatars and to show that this system is better than building thousands of different systems that are closed and in their worlds.
We’re not creating the metaverse, we are just trying to solve one problem: identity and avatar layer, giving you a way to represent yourself in a way that you feel happy about.
Business logic is important, for sure. What about responsibility? Some studies, like xx, have shown that virtual avatars can actually influence our behavior and sense of self in real life. How do companies like RPM go about making the metaverse ethical?
This is something we think about a lot, actually. Generally, we’re very driven by what users and developers want. The system needs to be useful and beneficial for everyone involved. It’s very hard to predict the impact of all this stuff in the long term though. As a founder, the main thing you’re thinking about is building something that people need, while scaling yourself.
That’s why people like Mark Zuckerberg are in this tough position right now. They didn’t expect to be there, and now they’re not making the right decisions. So we just have to build every day and try to make the right ethical choices as we go — but we’re just human and we can’t predict the impact 5 or 10 years away from now.
Ultimately, that’s how evolution happens: people trying to make progress themselves. As a result, we get better tech, and better experiences and products, more efficient systems and better economies. That’s the driving force of everything. All of these things will have an impact that is hard to imagine.
The rate of change is like accelerating. Generally though, I feel that we’re getting better and better at this.
What has been the positive impact of RPM avatars?
The whole idea started from wanting to give people a way to express their identity, to translate who they are in real life in virtual words as well. This wasn’t easily doable before.
You needed to scan yourself in a studio and pay like $5,000 for making a replica of yourself. Or spend hours creating an avatar that sort of looks like you in a few games. That’s why we spent the first 5–7 years building hardware and selfie conversion tech. Now with our avatars you can have different outfits too, and maybe soon animals and creatures.
I think people appreciate all of that. It’s especially important when speaking with people you already know in real life — you can relate to them better this way. In general, when it comes to game and 3D worlds, avatars make virtual communication more immersive and more real — you can actually do things together, live through experiences. It’s not the same as a chat or video.
Most people under 20 these days play video games. It’s not a nerdy thing it used to be when I first got into it. Today, it’s something everybody does — a way to hang out together virtually. That’s very powerful. When those kids grow up and start working together, they will go to these 3D immersive worlds even for work.
What would that look like exactly?
There’ll be many different avatars that you’ll need, or you would want to have, in the metaverse.
People would have realistic avatars for video call type scenarios. Then, they would use an aspirational version of themselves for games / virtual worlds. We’ll also invent completely different versions of ourselves in fantasy worlds, to explore new places and play.
We’re not saying that our solution is the only one you’d need — it’s about giving people the options to have whatever they want. Building an avatar system internally for your game is extremely complex, but it’s doable. Every high-end game has one. The problem is making these avatars functional in other games.
What role do NFTs play in allowing us to build these transportable virtual identities? Will they come as ‘mainstream’ as avatars?
NFTs will become mainstream once they are easily usable for a mainstream audience.
It’s not something that the market really values yet, but over time, it will be important for NFTs and other digital assets to become usable in virtual worlds. That’s what metaverse is— you playing with your avatar, interacting with other avatars and doing stuff with the assets you own.
You can kind of do it with a 2D profile picture (‘pfp’). That’s why it’s been the first boom. But 3D virtual worlds will have a much bigger economy than any kind of pfd can ever have.
Having pfps and virtual dresses on sale now for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars is an incredible way to create value, but an average user cannot relate and put their savings into that.
With 3D assets and NFTs, there’s one part which is ownership authentication — proving that you own an avatar outfit. And it’s also making that avatar usable in the metaverse. We are focused on the second part, integrating your assets to your avatar, so they have some utility.
To give an example, imagine playing a game that you like, with your friends, where you buy an NFT to start for $15. If you were early in that game — and there’s only 10,000 of those NFTs combined — you can sell that for $500 in three months if there are more people who have come into the game and that’s cool. The point for them is not to speculate — they’re there to play the game, wear cool outfits they can buy in-game; and then they learn that it can also be financially beneficial. With NFTs, they can actually own a piece of the success of the platform. That’s an added value that a lot of people will discover as they take part. Onboarding of more people to NFT space has to come through things that people find tangibly valuable for them.
Speaking of NFTs, we’re launching our genesis drop tomorrow! It’s for CryptoPunk owners. If you own a CryptoPunk, you create a 3D version of it that lives in the metaverse. It kind of becomes your gaming and 3D virtual world avatar to give me your Punk a new dimension. It’s our tribute to the legendary OGs. We will obviously have more accessible drops coming out as well, in the future.
About the series: 1 Min in the Metaverse is a LinkedIn original that aims to explore the metaverse through the eyes of those building it! Each interview comes with a 1-min sneak peek of key ideas as well as a full version long read.