Gucci goes digital

Avatars, identity, digital fashion, and generational change

Gucci just launched its first digital-only sneaker. The Virtual 25 cost £11.99 through the Gucci app, and you can wear them in your social media photos, and on your VR Chat and Roblox avatars.

Lots of brands have been experimenting with digital fashion and cosmetics, like L’Oreal’s Signature Faces, but to date it’s mostly been stunts and experimentation. Now they’re taking their first steps into earning money from them; you can buy Puma in Zepeto, Adidas in Aglet, and Oscar de la Renta in Drest.


Art on the Blockchain

This is me thinking out loud—I mean that almost literally, I recorded an earlier version of it one evening as voice memo. I’m not firm in my convictions on this piece and am very open to having my mind changed.

There’s been a lot of news recently about digital art sales using a technology called NFTs*. These are, to give a very, very layman’s explanation, digital tokens which prove the ownership (or transaction history) of a digital object. Digital art can be copied infinitely because it’s digital, but an NFT uses a blockchain to provide proof of provenance so no matter how many copies are in existence you can have the ‘one true original’, certified and validated, which gives it (artificial) scarcity and (theoretical) resale value.

It’s kind of like if a conceptual artist had made a physical work of art using a Mars bar wrapper; you could say, well, anybody can have a Mars bar wrapper, in fact I’ve got one in my pocket, so that’s worth whatever the art is worth. But value is what we assign to things. So there’s a collective agreement that the artist’s work is art (transcending the object itself) and the art world uses certificates of authenticity and ownership to prove it’s the ‘original’ and not just a Mars bar wrapper you’ve just bought from the shop. That certificate maintains that Mars bar wrapper’s value. And that’s what NFTs do for digital art.

I’m torn on this because, in theory, I think it sounds like a good idea—artists getting justly rewarded for their work! But two things give me pause: the environmental impact, and cryptocurrencies.

The issue of the environmental impact is raised because of the way the blockchain (Ethereum in this case) works, which is by using a lot of computational power which is incredibly—I mean, incrediblyenergy intensive.

Because [cryptocurrency] coins ask the investors of tomorrow to buy in at ever increasing computational power, we have ended up in a horrific spiralling excess of energy usage and ecological devastation.

Everest Pipkin

A lot of people claim this is going to be fixed—there are many good arguments in favour of this not being true, but there are also some far less resource-intensive alternative cryptocurrencies.

The other thing is that I don’t have faith that cryptocurrencies aren’t just a big pyramid scheme, and the people spending big money on digital art with NFTs tend to be people who invested in crypto early, when their currency wasn’t as valuable as it is now:

What you have right now are these crypto-millionaires who are trying to create assets with the money that they’ve accumulated. One of the only ways they can do that right now is through the NFT market, because it accepts cryptocurrency

Lucien Smith

These people stand to gain from more people buying the currency and driving its value up, because cryptocurrencies are essentially useless as actual currencies, only as vehicles for speculation. Or, more succinctly put:

NFTs use “art” to make crypto speculation seem pro-social.

Nathan Jurgenson

But putting aside the environmental concerns (as if that’s even an option!) and my own cryptocurrency skepticism, there’s a further critical question to be answered: do NFTs actually work? As in, will they be accepted as actually providing sufficient provenance for a thing to retain a value?

There’s no question that people will buy digital art which has an NFT because they’re doing that right now. But it’s the sell-on which will be the test of whether or not this system works; whether an NFT is sufficient for a secondary buyer to say, I accept that this token that you have is proof that this is a certified digital artwork from the artist and not a copy.

It requires collective belief for this to work. If the tokens are accepted as a genuine guarantee of authenticity by a secondary buyer, then it works. If it doesn’t, if the NFTs are simply not accepted as provenance after the initial sale, then the whole thing falls apart.

So whether or not people are paying hundreds of thousands pounds for pieces of digital art from the artist (or a broker) isn’t the test of whether or not this system works. The test is: does the art retain value (or appreciate in value)? Will secondary buyers and traders accept NFTs as proof? Will there be a collective belief in the system that sustains the market?

And further still: should the market be sustained at all? Is the big money pouring into NFTs, “a devastatingly lopsided, dangerous and unregulated market that exists solely as a form of exploitative mass delusion” as Luke Plunkett puts it, helping to prop up an art establishment that elevates certain art into high art just to maintain its own business?

Like I said before, the idea of artists getting fair reward for their art is a great idea. I’m just extremely wary of the crypto world being seen as the solution for that.

* NFT = non-fungible token; that is, a token which signifies a unique object.


Fortnite, Gaming, and Social+

It’s interesting that Fast Company magazine’s World’s Most Innovative Companies in 2021 lists Epic Games as an innovator in social media, not in gaming, largely because of Fortnite. Interesting because that’s how I see Fortnite as well.

A couple of people have commented on the increased number of stories on gaming in my newsletter, The Tech Landscape, this past year or so. To clarify, it’s not all gaming that I post about there, but a very specific area: social+ gaming.

Social+ is (very, very broadly) platforms which have a social graph that isn’t the main reason for using them. The social graph is critical to Facebook and Twitter; the feed exists because of your connections, and if you don’t follow anyone, there’s little use for them. Whereas in Fortnite (and TikTok) you go there to play, to create, to learn, or otherwise be entertained, and the social graph improves your experience but isn’t necessary for it.

So while I, as a gamer, generally enjoy narrative-heavy single-person gaming, what I post about in the newsletter are social+ games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Fortnite, Roblox, and so on. They’re interesting to me because of the social+ aspect; because of their in-game economies and opportunities for customisation, and because they’re games that enable creation as well as consumption.

Anyway, all of this is to say: please sign up to my newsletter, The Tech Landscape.


Physical+Virtual Events

The 10th annual League of Legends World Championship has just finished (Korea’s Damwon Gaming team won). The final is famed for its opening ceremony; this year saw physical music stars and dancers perform with the virtual group K/DA, in an augmented reality experience created with live in-camera digital effects and broadcast on the big screens of Pudong football stadium to 6,000 fans

The quarter-finals of the competitions used virtual studios: the room the contestants played in had walls and floor made of LED screens which ran animations to provide optical illusions, enhanced by in-camera AR. This meant that the dancers in the opening sections could interact with the digital effects in real-time.

This behind-the-scenes video explains the technology (also used in the Disney+ show, The Mandalorian) and shows more effects that it enabled.

In the same weekend, Fortnite’s Party Royale Island hosted a 30+ minute set by musician J Balvin, using a virtual studio and post-production effects (as well as some cute ghost costumes).

The New York Times has an in-depth piece on how the J Balvin set was recorded—including its virtual guest stars, recorded separately in front of a green screen, then added later.

The LoL World Championship was an IRL event augmented with digital; Fortnite’s Afterlife Party was a digital event enhanced by IRL enhanced by digital!

Lockdowns around the world make it hard to produce live (or as-live) entertainment events, but the desire to be entertained hasn’t gone away. Entertainment (and fashion) brands moving into games is one of the most interesting shifts happening in digital at the moment; another is the move in the opposite direction, where the graphics engines which power those games (like Epic’s Unreal Engine) are starting to be used for real-time digital effects in visual media. A great merge is underway.