Pop­u­lar Bit­moji app fu­els avatar craze

But owner Snap might still not be able to turn it into a mon­ey­maker.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - TECH SUNDAY - By Paresh Dave

For Anokhy De­sai, a new hair­cut or out­fit re­quires more than a trip to the shop­ping cen­ter. Th­ese days, she also finds her­self also div­ing into the Bit­moji app to chop hair and re­place clothes.

It’s there that De­sai and mil­lions of other peo­ple have cre­ated per­son­al­ized car­i­ca­tures of them­selves. Bit­moji at­taches the car­toon­ish like­nesses to funny and cheesy phrases and then stamps them on im­ages that can be shared across so­cial me­dia.

The hi­lar­ity and ab­sur­dity of those im­ages has turned Bit­moji into one of the most-down­loaded apps in the world, and its il­lus­tra­tions have taken over text-mes­sag­ing threads and Snapchat con­ver­sa­tions. They’ve be­come such an im­por­tant form of self-ex­pres­sion that it’s com­mon to en­counter peo­ple, like De­sai, who reg­u­larly up­date their Bit­moji avatars to re­flect new hair­dos and fashion choices. The most de­voted among them boast that they spend more time pick­ing out clothes for their Bit­moji than their real-world self — a level of care un­like any­thing be­fore, ex­perts in the vir­tual re­al­ity in­dus­try say.

“We would look at Bit­moji as the high-wa­ter mark for what’s been done to make the avatar ex­pe­ri­ence main­stream,” said Berkley Frei, gen­eral man­ager at avatar soft­ware firm Morph 3D.

But what that adds up to is the big ques­tion for Snapchat, which bought Bit­strips, the com­pany that de­vel­oped Bit­moji, for more than $64 mil­lion 18 months ago.

Snap Inc. as a whole has been un­der pres­sure from in­vestors since its ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing this year to in­crease ad rev­enue and show that it’s far from fin­ished adding users. The un­prof­itable Los An­ge­les com­pany hasn’t re­leased rev­enue fig­ures or user num­bers for Bit­moji.

But ear­lier this month, Snap an­nounced 3D Bit­moji World Lenses, which al­low users to place a three-di­men­sional ren­der­ing of their Bit­moji in real-world scenes cap­tured through their smart­phone cam­era. The char­ac­ters ap­pear to in­ter­act with their en­vi­ron­ment, and the an­i­ma­tions can be shared on Snapchat.

The fea­ture marks a ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal step for a com­pany that has al­ready dab­bled in mixed re­al­ity fea­tures that place vir­tual ob­jects, such as a now-fa­mous dancing hot dog, in pho­tos and videos. If it takes off, it could fur­ther Snap’s lead in the nascent mixed and aug­mented re­al­ity sec­tor.

But it’s un­clear whether Bit­moji will turn into a ma­jor rev­enue gen­er­a­tor for Snap.

Be­fore the ac­qui­si­tion, Bit­strips had part­ner­ships with HBO, For­ever 21 and other com­pa­nies mak­ing branded cloth­ing avail­able to

users. Terms of the deals, which Snap has al­lowed to stand for now, haven’t been dis­closed.

So­lic­it­ing spon­sored op­tions from any ad­ver­tiser would fit with prior strat­egy. Fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst James Cak­mak mused that just an­a­lyz­ing users’ bit­moji se­lec­tions could re­veal a lot about their cur­rent emo­tions and be valuable in de­cid­ing what ads to show them else­where in Snapchat.

Fur­ther, the Bit­moji app en­ables users to search for im­ages tied to a par­tic­u­lar greet­ing or mood, and the search data would pro­vide ad­di­tional in­sight if used for ad­ver­tis­ing pur­poses some­day.

But Snap hasn’t added any new rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing op­tions to Bit­moji, ex­cept for in­tro­duc­ing the NBA and Ma­jor League Base­ball as partners for vir­tual jer­seys.

Digital avatars aren’t a new phe­nom­e­non — Ya­hoo pop­u­lar­ized on­line avatars in the late 2000s but was later over­taken by Google and Face­book, both of which in­stead pri­or­i­tize real-life pro­file pho­tos.

Asian com­pa­nies, which have been trend­set­ters in on­line chat tools, have seen only mild pickup with Bit­moji-like apps such as FaceQ and Myi­dol, ac­cord­ing to app re­search firm Sen­sor Tower. And video game avatars, such as the Nin­tendo Mii for Wii gam­ing de­vices, lack the same broad ap­peal and con­stant edit­ing as­so­ci­ated with bit­moji, ex­perts said.

Snapchat’s ri­val Face­book and sev­eral star­tups, in­clud­ing Oben and Gab­see, are fight­ing to be­come the dom­i­nant provider of 3-D avatar-mak­ing tools for vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences.

Ap­ple even show­cased ear­lier this month An­i­moji — an­i­mated emoji whose fa­cial ex­pres­sions users can change with the iPhone’s new face-scan­ning tech­nol­ogy.

Many star­tups see mon­ey­mak­ing po­ten­tial in sell­ing wardrobes and spe­cial fea­tures to users. Oben, based out­side L.A., is one go­ing fur­ther, en­abling avatars to speak and move in 3-D.

But it’s Snap and the Toronto-based Bit­strips unit it ac­quired that have suc­ceeded more than any com­pany at get­ting peo­ple to in­vest time in avatars. Ac­cord­ing to Bit­strips, that’s be­cause the com­pany dis­cov­ered a need peo­ple prob­a­bly didn’t know ex­isted.

“Hav­ing a digital ex­ten­sion of your­self is a ne­ces­sity,” Bit­strips Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ja­cob Black­stock told Fast Com­pany last month. “In terms of ev­ery­one I know, I mostly see them (through smart­phones). If you’re go­ing to live in here, you’ve got to make this a bet­ter place to live.”

SNAP INC.

Ear­lier this month, Snap re­leased 3-D Bit­moji World Lenses, which al­low users to place their avatars in real-world lo­ca­tions cap­tured on their smart­phones.

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