Every week, The Interline analyses up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Fashion’s crossover with the Metaverse approaches a flashpoint, but the Metaverse itself is only part-formed.
As buzzwords go, “Metaverse” is up there with the most opaque. Headlines are flying thick and fast that include the word as a shorthand for, essentially, the entire realm of digital expression, connectivity, and interactivity. Videogames, AR filters for virtual fashions, social media, virtual YouTubers and Twitch streamers, NFTs, digital art, and much more are all currently huddled under one umbrella – a canopy over the physical world that layers a heterogeneous bunch of digital worlds on top.
The Interline is old enough to remember when the idea of a division between a communal digital realm and reality (“meatspace” is still a favourite term for distinguishing the physical plane from the virtual one, despite it being decades old) was something upstart cyberpunk authors and computer club teens trucked, and everyone else made into wild, alarmist films like The Lawnmower Man.
The Interline is written by people who were computer club teens in the 80s and 90s, and who own signed novels by then-upstart cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, so it’s doubly strange to see the Metaverse label being used so liberally today. And the way it’s written about today, it’s as if the future just arrived, fully-formed, while nobody was paying attention.
But there’s a fundamental difference between the digital realms posited in the novels we read growing up and the digital realms of today: universality. In fiction, cyberspace was painted as a single virtual environment or operating system used by billions. And by extension, people would have two identities: one attached to their physical bodies, and one tethered to the single, shared, digital realm that the majority of the population experienced as operators.
Today we still have the physical bodies, obviously, but our digital identities are entirely fragmented. Although several organisations are trying, nobody has yet built a single profile that can be ported through every layer of the Metaverse. And to put the scale of that problem into context, even the first component we mentioned (videogames) has close to zero interoperability between games that are part of the same series, or distributed by the same publisher. Your Metaverse identity right now is split between so many different platform holders, systems, art styles, AR standards and such that it feels disingenuous to call it a “verse” at all. It’s a landscape at best – one where you need many different identities to stay current.
There is a clear conclusion to be drawn here. Media that depicted a unified Metaverse took place post-consolidation – at a time in which commercial competition, clashes in data standards, barriers to portability, and demanding device requirements that put access out of reach of all but the wealthy, had been resolved.
That is not the time we live in. Even with the galvanic jolt that was the pandemic, the world is still pre-consensus when it comes to deciding on which digital realm will dominate – or even whether a single “verse” is a desirable outcome at all.
But that does not mean that the Metaverse is not big business. This week Epic Games completed a funding round of $1 billion that was specifically pegged to a “long term vision for the Metaverse,” and the company’s MetaHuman creator – previously mentioned in these pages – is now accepting open applications for access.
Not coincidentally, Epic’s cross-cultural freight train Fortnite is probably the closest thing we have to a Metaverse today. Official figures that illustrate Fortnite’s total player count are hard to come by, but although it’s clearly below the billions that William Gibson envisioned for cyberspace, it’s likely to be approaching the halfway mark to one billion. And celebrities are already treating Fornite as being the established, go-to platform for audience engagement in digital, interactive form; Epic partners with Captain Marvel actor Brie Larson, who this week unveiled her locker of essential Fortnite items. It seems to be a short hop from here to celebrity capsule collections for fashion – digital or physical.
Which brings us to the question of what it means to dress for the Metaverse. Unsurprisingly, there’s no single answer yet. A lot of work is going into ensuring that digital fashions sold in NFT form come complete with the requisite versions for use across different AR platforms, which feels like the closest anyone has come to codifying an approach to Metaverse-wide styling, but having to create, recreate, translate, and manually port digital items for different applications is only ever going to be a temporary solution.
Interest in where fashion and the Metaverse meet might be approaching a flashpoint at the moment, but treating the Metaverse as solved technological and economic problem – which is becoming a worryingly common theme – is selling the distance from here to there very short.
Later today some of the biggest names in digital fashion are coming together for the sale of a unique NFT collection, on a unique platform, with a unique shared vision – all with the promise of reliable digital ownership, portable assets, and more. From a creative perspective there is a lot there to like, and from a practical and technical one there are reasons for cautious optimism, too. But the sense remains that fashion – at least in a digital couture sense – is gearing up to create for a Metaverse that still needs to catch up.
Other noteworthy news and events from the technology side of fashion this week included:
The publishing of a retrospective dataset revealing that sustainability commitments may stand on even shakier foundations than previously thought. According to a Cornell University study, audit fraud is widespread in the largest manufacturing regions, with a majority of all supplier audits conducted in China and India between 2011 and 2017 being ranked as unreliable. For many Western brands, supposedly independent audits have been a primary tool for assessing suppliers’ adherence to codes of practice, and gauging the progress those suppliers are making towards ethical and environmental targets. The idea that fully half of these could be unreliable at best (fraudulent at worst) lends a great deal of weight to a policy of more direct, real-time monitoring of production.
The integration of an established PLM solution with a 3D asset management and content management solution, the combination of which is targeted at enabling brands and retailers to use their 3D assets in new applications up and downstream. As more fashion brands pursue ambitious digital product creation strategies, a growing need is likely to emerge for the resulting assets to be used elsewhere, so any initiative aimed at making that process more streamlined is worth paying attention to.
The announcement of a further extension of one of the leading digital materials platforms’ scanning service networks, in partnership with a key player in material scanning hardware. As we have written about in a recent collaboration, material digitisation is a critical component of any digital product creation strategy, but both hardware and process have been prohibitively costly and complex to access for many brands. Any partnership that plans to lower those barriers of entry has the potential to provide a net benefit to the accessibility of a vital process.
And the best from The Interline this week:
This week we published the first exclusive from our newest Senior Contributor, alongside a video interview and an exclusive op-ed that both evaluate how far a digital production technology has come, but from very different perspectives.
Tiffany Lung made her debut on The Interline with an exclusive look at why fashion supply chains need to be overhauled, how AI and automation can help, and why Alibaba’s Xunxi technology approach could serve as a template.
Mark Harrop interviewed two senior Figures behind Twine Solutions to gauge how far digital dyeing of threads and yarns has come, and how much father it can go.
Percy Chinoy made the case for additive manufacturing as more than just a tool for personalisation, arguing that it’s now viable as part of a complete digital production pipeline.
Next week our focus on supply chains continues.