Facebook devoted much of its annual developer conference to the concept of augmented reality — using technology to place a digital layer on top of the real world, either for creative or functional reasons. Starting with our smartphone cameras, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, we’ll begin placing virtual objects in our physical surroundings, until eventually glasses and other wearables do it for us. He and his deputies went on to show examples of AR objects created using the smartphone, such as a group of cartoon sharks circling an actual cereal bowl. But to me, none of what was shown onstage was quite as compelling as Gabsee.
Gabsee, a free app now available for Android and iOS, lets you place a three-dimensional avatar of yourself into the real world. It’s essentially an animated, 3D version of Bitmoji, the customized stickers that Snapchat acquired and implemented to great effect in its own app. Bitmoji’s constantly evolving roster of stickers remains Snapchat’s most delightful feature — particularly when your friend has also created a Bitmoji, and Snapchat generates custom stickers of the two of you together. But Gabsee’s 3D avatars look like the Bitmoji of the future — and illustrate a more personalized path forward for AR.
Gabsee does three things. First, it lets you create a 3D cartoon version of yourself, customizing your eyes, nose, lips, skin tone, hairstyle, facial hair, eyewear, clothes, and shoes. It’s not yet quite as inclusive as I’d like it to be — there’s currently only one body type, for example. (The company says that more customization options are on their way.)
Second, Gabsee layers your avatar on top of the real world and then animates it. After creating your avatar, you can aim your smartphone’s rear camera anywhere you’d like to see it. Gabsee will place it somewhere on the screen, or you can move it by tapping around. (You can also resize it by pinching your fingers.) From there, choose an animation based on how you’re feeling: excited, angry, tired, and so on. There are also a growing number of action-based animations: moonwalking, DJing, and dropping a mic, among others. Gabsee currently lets you animate yourself 42 different ways, with eight more unlockable if you do something to help the company grow — like following it on Facebook or Instagram, for example. Tap the record button to capture a clip of up to 10 seconds.
Finally, Gabsee lets you share that clip to Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Instagram, or SMS. You can also save it to your camera roll. Happily, you can continue editing your clip using your chosen social network’s creative tools after importing it — adding a geotag or some text, for example.
It’s a fresh take on MyIdol, a similar Chinese app that briefly captivated us in 2015. And as with MyIdol, the results are almost invariably charming. With Gabsee, my avatar has drank beer, made it rain cash, and shot himself out of a canon. It takes the charm of Bitmoji makes it cinematic — and my friends have taken notice. When I began sharing Gabsee clips on Facebook and Snapchat a few weeks ago, I was swarmed by people who wanted to know how I was making them.
A few emails later, I was meeting with the team in their rented co-working space in San Francisco. Less than a year old, Gabsee is the product of a three-person team from France. In the fall of 2015, former Google employee Lucas Bouyoux met Arthur Pernot at an entrepreneurship program at UC Berkeley. Both men were enamored by Holochess, the holographic chess game in the original Star Wars. After returning to France, they began pursuing related ideas in the emerging field of AR, which promised to bring experiences like Holochess to life.
Initially, their ideas led them to explore AR tech that a business might buy: scannable objects at in-store displays, for example. “It was boring stuff,” Pernot says. But that was about to change.
“Then Pokémon Go came,” said Bouyoux, 26. “And now everyone knows what augmented reality is.” When Pokémon Go landed on tens of millions of smartphones in summer 2016, AR became a mainstream phenomenon. Suddenly, it seemed plausible that ordinary people would download AR apps to their phones. And so Bouyoux and Pernot began building the company that would become Gabsee.
Their first ideas for an app focused on letting users leave 3D, digital notes in the world around them. (Zuckerberg demonstrated a similar concept at F8 this year.) But soon they were drawn to the concept of digital avatars: customized, animated figures that could express thoughts and feelings on the user’s behalf. They hoped to offer “a little glimpse of craziness that everyone has,” Bouyoux says. “We wanted to unleash people’s personalities.”
They called their new company Gabsee — a name more literal than it may look. (It’s meant to evoke the way your avatar lets you see yourself gabbing.) For a mascot, they chose the lynx, after a French expression attributing excellent eyesight to the animal.
Bruno Gregoire, a 23-year-old engineer, joined the team as its chief technical officer. Bouyoux learned 3D modeling to create the customized avatars, and became Gabsee’s art director as well as its CEO. Pernot, 26, runs business development.
In March, Gabsee was accepted to The Refiners, a San Francisco accelerator that tries to help foreign startups succeed in Silicon Valley. For the next three months, Gabsee will refine its app while meeting with investors and fundraising.
One stop the company has already made is at Facebook. The Gabsee team attended F8 and was delighted to see that AR, its chosen field, had become the focus of attention. Ficus Kirkpatrick, a Facebook engineering director who works on its AR camera, told me Bouyoux had impressed him — and that Gabsee was a hit among Facebook employees. (Indeed, I first took note of Gabsee when a Facebook designer posted it to his public story.)
For now, companies like Facebook and Snapchat are guiding us into AR experiences with digital face masks. Some transform you so much that you’re barely recognizable — all the more reason to bring on 3D avatars, which are free to transform in even stranger new ways.
Gabsee isn’t yet a year old, but it’s take on the idea is novel. Already, it looks like a ripe acquisition target for Facebook, Snapchat, or another social company. And if they don’t buy it, they might just copy it. In time, it seems likely that every major social platform will build custom avatar creation tools like these. They use our likenesses to make the merger of our online and offline worlds feel truly personal for the first time. And whatever Gabsee’s fate, that trend appears likely to continue.