AR Insider Interviews is a series that profiles the biggest innovators in XR. Narratives are based on interviews with subjects, but opinions and analysis are that of AR Insider. See the rest of the series here.  

One of the biggest sources of value on the web (besides Google’s index) is the “identity layer” that Facebook created. As immersive computing evolves, the question is how that identity layer will materialize. Who will be the Facebook of AR and VR identity (perhaps Facebook?).

Just as identity on the web is tied to usernames, profile pics, self-expression and other forms of likeness (think: Bitmoji), identity in AR and VR could be more three dimensional. That’s already seen in things like Oculus’ avatar engine, Altspace and even non-VR experiences like Fortnite.

“Expression and identity are factors that are critical to what makes a 3D virtual experience different from, say, an old paper metaphor like chat rooms, Skype or even arguably Discord,” Aura advisor Oscar Clark told AR Insider in an interview, alongside co-founder and CEO Alex Grona.

Avatar as a Service

Aura is a product of Atom Universe, a cross-platform virtual world for social interaction, creative expression and virtual events. To onboard new users, it developed an easy way to create a personalized avatar using one’s smartphone to 3D scan their face (see video below).

While it continues to develop and support Atom Universe on PlayStation, Steam and other platforms, it’s also spinning off its avatar engine for other 3D experiences — everything from online poker to eSports to social spaces. This parallel track makes it a sort of “avatar as a service.”

The idea is that 3D interactive experience publishers can use Aura for avatar creation during the process of onboarding new users. In the spirit of SaaS, it can do the heavy lifting for personalizing avatars while partners worry about building whatever interactive experience they’re building.

“Everyone is trying to create avatar systems. We can do that for them, make it easy and provide a pool of existing avatars from people who have already signed up,” said Clark. “On top of that, we can provide a retail platform they can leverage and generate revenue from the avatar system.”

A virtual concert on PlayStation with photorealistic avatars made with AURA from 3d scans of real people

Built-In Audience

As Clark hints above, Aura offers a built-in audience to accelerate partners’ network effect. Because it operates across platforms and is interoperable between 3D experiences, it can lessen onboarding friction for existing users to join a new game. They already have an avatar created.

That makes it attractive for 3D experience publishers in that it lowers barriers to attract and onboard new users. But it’s also attractive for those users because they can have a baseline avatar that’s like a passport that they can take with them across 3D experiences.

Of course, there will be some personalization from one experience to the next. Clark admits there’s lots of stylistic variance, and that Aura doesn’t want to strip out a given game’s uniqueness nor be a lowest common denominator. It’s more about providing a baseline likeness.

“I could say, I want to be a wizard in a fantasy game, therefore I want to have a long flowing beard and a curly mustache,” he said. “However in a football game, I maybe want to get rid of the beard and maybe be a bit less chunky but I want you to still recognize that it’s me.”

Step Function

As for the business model, Aura has several possible tracks to maximize its addressable market. That can include licensing its technology, or a revenue share for in-game purchases for Avatar accouterments, a la Fortnite. That transactional functionality is even baked into its engine.

It’s also worth noting that the company’s biggest competition is the homegrown avatar systems used in various games or networks. The 800-pound gorilla in that respect is likely Oculus’ own avatar system referenced above. And Facebook continues to do lots of avatar research.

But Aura’s edge is its singular focus and scale from cross-platform orientation. It hopes it can reach network effect faster through a step function of new partners and networks it establishes one by one. As it does that, its growth could self propel, a la network-driven flywheel effect.

“We’ve looked at the business model and conceptual principle, and we think specializing in Avatars puts us in an interesting position,” said Clark. “Users can be recognized across multiple experiences: If we can pull that off, we have something exciting that consumers will actually like.”

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Disclosure: AR Insider has no financial stake in the companies mentioned in this post, nor received payment for its production. Disclosure and ethics policy can be seen here.