Last week, Mark Zuckerberg was roundly mocked for the bad graphics in his preview of a new expansion of Horizon Worlds, Meta’s metaverse effort. His quick response promising better avatars for the actual launch speaks to just how much appearances do matter in these situations. Now, in a spot of perfect timing, a startup out of Talinn, Estonia, called Ready Player Me — which has built a popular platform for creating dynamic, animated avatars to use across virtual worlds built and operated by others — is announcing $56 million in funding to grow its business.
The company today handles about 5 million avatars from across some 3,000 partners, and the funding will be used in three basic areas: to continue hiring (the company has offices in NYC); to expand the platform with more developer tools, including those for monetization, and to build more services for creators using Ready Player Me (it offers both an SDK and API); and to double down on the idea that creating single avatars, and identities, that are interoperable and can be used across multiple virtual environments will improve overall user experience, and thus help grow user numbers.
“Our bigger vision is to connect the metaverse through avatars,” said Timmu Toke, co-founder and CEO, Ready Player Me, in an interview. “There may be metaverse [experiences] owned by big companies, who will make all the rules, but there is a vision of an open one where people can travel, built by millions of developers, where no one controls the whole thing. Like the internet. We’re trying to push the world towards that metaverse.”
The Series B is being led by Andreessen Horowitz, the storied VC that has in recent times doubled down on all things web3, including metaverse technology; and it is being joined by a longer list of equally big names. David Baszucki, co-founder of Roblox; Justin Kan, co-founder of Twitch; Sebastian Knutsson & Riccardo Zacconi, King Games co-founders; sports and entertainment company Endeavor; Kevin Hart and Hartbeat Ventures; the TikTok-y D’Amelio family; Punk6529; Snowfro; Collab Currency; Plural; Konvoy Ventures; Robin Chan, co-founder of Fractal; and others are also participating.
Ready Player Me isn’t disclosing a valuation — Toke said “it’s good” — but the round is coming swiftly on the heels of the company’s last round, a Series A of $13 million earlier this year in January in a round led by Taavet + Sten (a VC led by Taavet Hinrikus former of Wise/TransferWise and Sten Tamkivi, formerly of Teleport and once an EIR at a16z; it’s also in this Series B).
Between then and now, Ready Player Me has been growing like a weed. The over 3,000 partners that it works with is more than triple the number it had in January (when the number was around 900).
That number says something about the fragmentation in the space at the moment — and something about how long-tail the audience is right now, too — two reasons why having companies building services that work across all of these different walled gardens makes some sense.
Whether that concept will have staying power over time — for example if we start to see some consolidation and concentration of audiences, or if bigger players (like Meta) want to take the creation and control of avatars into their own hands — remains to be seen. That is definitely one potential gating factor for startups like this one. Or, potentially, an opportunity: it makes a company like Ready Player Me an acquisition target for those hoping to be the single more powerful platform extending across the metaverse; but it also gives the startup some potential strategic impetus to grow and become that platform itself.
In support of the latter route, Ready Player Me says that its tech was eight years in the making: the company was hatched out of Wolf3D, which worked with companies like Tencent, Verizon, HTC and Wargaming to build them custom avatar systems.
That work led to the company aggregating a proprietary database of more than 20,000 face scans, created using the company’s own 3D scanners. That database was used in turn used to build a deep-learning-based platform, which can produce real-time animated avatars not unlike the Animojis you get on Apple’s iOS, except that with Ready Player Me, the animated avatars are created to “accurately predict and render realistic faces from a single 2D photo,” which can be used on desktop, web, and mobile. It can also work off 3D images.
(Wolf3D still has a site as you can see from the link above, although the site hasn’t been updated since 2021, when Ready Player Me was unveiled. Toke told me it is a great lead generator so it’s kept it up, but that enterprise/B2B business has been rolled up for now.
These days, Ready Player Me’s partners span both web3 and web2 environments, and they include VRChat, Spatial, Somnium Space, RTFKT, said the company. The startup said it works with creators and fashion brands — customers include Adidas, New Balance, Dior, Pull&Bear, and Warner Brothers — to help them build cross-game avatar “assets” across the metaverse. The partners are the ones building platforms, or games and other experiences within those other platforms; and so part of what Ready Player Me also offers is a chance for its network of partners to integrate their avatars into those other experiences.
“Our core target today is the midsized gaming company rather than the big companies. We talk with Meta and others too,” Toke said, “but we think that the bigger will grow rapidly and so it makes sense to work with them first.” He noted that a lot of its partners “are still building experiences so a big part of the network is still not activated, and there is a lot more growth to come.”
The idea of building a platform to create avatars that work across multiple environments is central to how a lot of proponents of web3 think the whole effort will become more viable in the long term. Some of the big issues in metaverse business models up to now have been accessibility and user experience — in effect, you have to buy into device ownership and it’s all a little on the clumsy side to use, really aimed more at early adopters willing to take on that baggage than the mass market — so creating at least one piece of tech to make it easier to port one’s identity from one virtual world to another — complete with a single user ID — removes one of the obstacles.
“Ready Player Me is loved by both developers and players as the largest platform for avatar-systems-as-a-service, and is well on their way to building the interoperable identity protocol for the open Metaverse,” said Jonathan Lai, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. “We’ve been deeply impressed by the team’s blend of developer empathy, technical chops, and entrepreneurial pragmatism, and couldn’t be more excited to partner with them on this journey.”