Venice, California-based Genies, whose app allows users to build a 3D cartoon of themselves, has raised a $10M venture round in November. After its beta launch early this year (1 million downloads), Genies has now launched its reformed app which claims to use its “proprietary technology” to ensure that your digital selves mirror not just how you look—your skin tone, eye color, hair style, clothing, and other features—but also your personality, likes and dislikes.
Genies’ users can choose between a million customization options to make, what the company calls, digital “clones” of themselves. If the original clones were ‘bitmojis’, ‘genies’ are far more advanced. More than average, goofy avatars, the startup uses AI to program the genies’ brains to match how humans feels in real life. The company then uses this to enable avatar-to-avatar communication, which can be integrated into other messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and iMessage. Group communication is possible but currently, limited to a group of six.
How Genies Works
Users can download the app and start the process of creating their digital selves. They can choose their skin tone, hair style, color, face shape, eye color, and head shape from what’s available to create a clone of themselves quickly and easily. The clone isn’t final as one can go back and edit it numerous times. What’s new is that this identical digital twin that is born doesn’t just look like you, it also acts like you on messaging apps. You can tap on “actions” to make your clone copy your movements, facial expressions, or even thoughts and feelings. It was reported that the company’s scientists and engineers pored over hundreds of millions of chats to formulate an algorithm that can detect more than 180 dimensions of mood changes and express human emotion through digital simulacrums.
It isn’t just a weird, facile exercise to humour millennials, nor is it a fad. Genies is being called the biggest rival for Snapchat-owned Bitmoji (Snapchat acquired Bitstrips, the maker of Bitmoji, for more than $100M in cash and stocks. Bitmoji currently has 100 million+ Android downloads), and has the backing—both institutional and financial—of numerous celebrities. It also already has its first brand integration and advertiser in place: Gucci.
In an effort to attract millennial audiences, the almost 100-year-old brand is allowing Genies’ digital avatars to choose their clothes from its luxury offering and, if they like it, buy the clothes first tried on their digital selves. “By being able to tell that story in an authentic way and allowing people to express themselves through what we do—that’s how we’re staying true to our brand mantra.” Robert Triefus, CMO, Gucci said. Gucci advertising in Genies reinforces how far and wide the emoji and avatar culture has proliferated in our online lives.
Genies’ Digital Identity – An Extension Of You
The startup was co-founded by Akash Nigam and Evan Rosenbaum who previously launched a group messaging app called Blend. Nigam, who wanted to drop out of college to work on Blend was, in fact, popularly asked by his WebMd founder father and mother to “raise $3M or finish college”. Nigam raised the money, dropped out, but Blend didn’t succeed. Nigam later said that “he ignored an acquisition offer instead to focus on Genies”.
When Genies was first launched early in the year, it picked up a million users (and a hundred thousand on waitlist) in three months. Its early users immediately created their digital selves and waited for more. Soon, Genies became about infotainment. It delivered the news of the day with a twist: The stories had your avatar doing something in line with the news as Nigam wanted it to become “the next Buzzfeed for the Snapchat generation”.
But even before the year ended, the startup changed its core service to become an app that allows avatars to chat, act out keywords and sentiments and share the result elsewhere. This is befitting and rewarding in a world where digital identities have become commonplace.
In doing so, Genies has also identified another source of revenue. It is, reportedly, making millions through the sale of its software development kit where it charges third-parties a fee to incorporate its technology into their platforms. “Companies started calling,” Nigam says of its business model, “asking if they could integrate Genies into their apps and websites”. And therefore, they “transitioned from being an app to an avatar services company.”
Perhaps Genies’ high-profile celebrity endorsement has something to do with its impressive growth. One of the earlier investor in the app was pop-star Shawn Mendes and other celebrities such as rapper 50 Cent, professional football players Dez Bryant, or the band Chainsmokers soon followed suit. Musicians like A$AP Rocky and Offset are some other investors. As Offset uses his brand avatar to pose for photos instead of him, Genies has become a fad among celebrities too. “I believe in Genies to the ten thousandth hour,” Offset says, “especially with the emoji lifestyle going on right now.”
Offset is right. The world is increasingly moving in the emoji direction which further incentivizes Genies to become an avatar services company. As an avatar services company, Genies can also capture a bigger market by collaborating—instead of competing—with other messaging apps. Its brand new feature is “official Genie” where individuals and brands can apply to be an “official Genie”. As an official Genie, the startup will “craft unique content” for the brand and “build their mobile app” where “animated scenes will generate dynamically for each user”.
The target audience, at the moment, is millennials, who, Nigam thinks “don’t want to be as direct as a text message” anymore. “Words don’t justify it. I think we’re coming into an era where people want to express themselves in avatar format.” In creating digital clones that not only look but also act like you, Genies is, therefore, foreseeing that the current text and emoji-based format will soon make way for something new, and if that something new is digital avatars, Genies is in a position to lead and heavily influence that change.
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