The online platforms that are forerunners of the metaverse vision for the future of the internet are already serving as workshops to develop products intended for real life.
The barrier between digital and tangible is shrinking. From sneakers sketched in the virtual world but produced in the real world, to designers who anticipate clothing in avatars before making it.
“In real life it is extremely expensive to make any product,” said French haute couture designer Julien Fournie, who runs his own fashion house.
The web is “an opening place to test things virtually and recreate an extremely accurate connection to real life experience,” he added.
The clamor for virtual goods comes amid predictions that the metaverse, a virtual reality version of the internet, will eventually replace today’s web.
In recent months, a growing number of brands have tried to establish a presence on the most resonant platforms, from Roblox to Fortnite, for fear of missing out on a huge technological and social shift.
How users interact with products online, what they search for and what they ignore, offers a relatively low cost and risk opportunity for companies to develop products.
This is part of an underlying trend to exploit data collected from the web “to develop better collections, to make better forecasts,” said Achim Berg, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
The coronavirus pandemic helped bridge the gap between the virtual and the real and prompted many designers to create in three dimensions, in the absence of being able to meet physically, Berg added.
At the end of February 2021, the RTFKT studio, together with the Seattle artist FEWOCiOUS, released a limited edition of 621 pairs of virtual sneakers through their NFTs, digital items that can be bought and sold using blockchain technology.
One aspect of the deal was to match each digital pair sold one day with tangible shoes, which the buyer could pick up six weeks later.
“We think that the emotional bond with physical objects is still important and can increase attachment” to digital products, Benoit Pagotto, one of the founders of RTFKT, a company acquired by the giant Nike in December, told The Wall Street Journal.
The Aglet application, which mixes virtual shoes and augmented reality, created its Telga shoes, in the style of giants like Adidas or Reebok.
It now plans to make actual sneakers, said the company’s CEO Ryan David Mullins, noting that a first batch of 500 was sold before production began.
“Once you can quantify the demand on these platforms it is much easier to build the channel to manufacture them in the real world,” he observed.
Aglet noted that the company is beginning to work with younger designers as the cost of entry to building their own physical brand can be too expensive for them.
“But starting to design virtually is much easier,” he added.
Another variant of online growth is high-end fashion platform Farfetch, which in August launched a formula to reserve Balenciaga, Off-White or Dolce & Gabbana items that are digital only.
That platform collaborated with the DressX studio, which designs virtual clothing, to achieve the most compelling representation possible.
The parts are then manufactured in the workshop only if they match what is requested. That is especially attractive for high-end brands.
That way of working can also help avoid overproduction and unsold goods, factors that have become a concern for associated environmental costs.
Not all, however, are convinced of turning digital into tangible.
“Digital items can be worn, collected and traded in the metaverse, so there is no need for physical counterparts,” said The Fabricant, a virtual fashion house,
The Dutch company sees the permeability between the virtual and the real world as a good thing when people choose to “bring the aesthetics of the virtual world into their physical lives.”