Tech

Why this Microsoft employee expanded an iconic NFT collection to make a more diverse, inclusive set

Some of the many faces in the ExpansionPunks NFT collection created by a Seattle-area tech veteran. (ExpansionPunks Image)

In certain circles of the internet, or in the hyped iteration known as Web3, having an authentic CryptoPunks NFT avatar as your Twitter profile picture is considered by some to be the ultimate status symbol.

But what if your status wasn’t represented by the many thousands of misfit male and female — or zombie, alien and ape — faces that make up the CrytpoPunks collection?

Perhaps you’re better off looking for yourself in ExpansionPunks, a project that takes the 10,000 uniquely generated characters of CryptoPunks and adds 10,000 more, with a pixel-by-pixel appreciation to detail — and diversity.

Jeremy Posvar, as represented by a split of his CryptoPunks, left, and ExpansionPunks avatars. (Courtesy of Jeremy Posvar)

ExpansionPunks is the brainchild of Jeremy Posvar, an internal marketing services manager who has been at Microsoft for 12 years, and who has been digging deeper into the world of cryptocurrencies, blockchain, NFTs, Web3, the metaverse and more over the past few.

First launched in 2017 by two Canadian software developers under the name Larva Labs, CryptoPunks have been called the OG NFTs, or non-fungible tokens — those bits of data stored on the blockchain that can turn a piece of digital art or a photograph or trading card into a verifiable asset. NFTs went mainstream in 2021, attracting huge sums, and CryptoPunks were a big part of the phenomenon.

Generated by an algorithm and offered on the Ethereum blockchain, the 24×24 pixel CryptoPunks got scooped up quickly back when they were free. But they now re-sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions. And they’re even poised to break out in Hollywood.

Posvar forked over18.95 ETH, or $53,263, for a Punk of his own — No. 7741 — last May. He considered the bald character with horned-rim glasses and a mole on its cheek to be a close enough representation of his actual appearance, and the avatar now stares out from his social pages.

Beyond that Punk, he’s also invested elsewhere in the NFT space. He owns three works by Beeple, the artist who sold a digital collection in a Christie’s auction for $69 million last March. Posvar is extremely bullish on Web3 and the decentralized promise of crypto and blockchain.

Young girls search for themselves

A female cowboy in the ExpansionPunks collection. (ExpansionPunks Image)

In a recent piece for Forbes, Seattle startup founder Rebekah Bastian wrote about the potential for diversity, equity and inclusion around NFTs, and how the space could generate exposure for a more diverse range of artists than typical avenues. And NFTs could help those artists access wealthy investors that they previously might not connect with.

But Bloomberg reported last month on how the prices being paid for CryptoPunks NFTs could suggest a diversity problem in the metaverse. There’s a disparity in the sums fetched by male and female Punks, and for light- and darker-skinned Punks. And those doing the buying tend to be largely white and male.

Larva Labs co-founder John Watkinson told Bloomberg that he’d hoped to create a diverse collection of characters that would appeal to a broad group of collectors and that he was “dismayed with the pricing discrepancies along racial and gender lines in the CryptoPunks.”

“The natural thing for them to say is, ‘Let’s find one that looks like me.’”

Seated at his home computer before buying his Punk NFT, Posvar zoomed in and out of the images of the assorted characters and their many varied traits. His hobby attracted the attention of his three daughters, ages 9, 10 and 14 at the time, and they wanted to play along.

“The natural thing for them to say is, ‘Let’s find one that looks like me,’” Posvar said. “And doing that was kind of eye opening because I had spent so much time looking for my Punk.”

Posvar’s daughters searched for CryptoPunks that they could connect with. At the time, his oldest thought hoodies were really cool, so she wanted a Punk with a hoodie. The middle one thought that smiles were cute, so she wanted a smiling Punk. His youngest loves horses and aspires to be a vet at some point and wanted a Punk with a cowboy hat.

“I wasn’t going to buy each of my kids a $50,000 punk of course, but the game of just looking for one was kind of fun,” he said.

But digging into the 100×100 matrix of all 10,000 CryptoPunks (below) on the Larva Labs site, they realized the traits they liked — even smiles — aren’t available on female Punks.

Jeremy Posvar dove deep on every pixel of the 10,000 characters in the CryptoPunks collection. (CryptoPunks Image)

“This is the crazy thing, if you think about it in the original collection, females can’t show emotion. They can only wear lipstick,” Posvar said. “What kind of statement does that make for our daughters?”

It was hard for Posvar to understand at first that this seminal NFT collection, which represents the history and early days of NFTs, might not speak to his own kids.

So he quickly reverse engineered a few CryptoPunks canvases to make female versions that his daughters could appreciate. Then he turned his attention to the more sought-after zombies, apes and aliens — all of which have male-style faces in the original collection. He built female versions for each of those 121 total characters.

“And after that I was like, shoot, if I want to do that, I might as well make all the skin tones and make an entire population of 10,000,” Posvar said. “Then it just started rolling from there.”

Attention to detail

Posvar teamed up with a blockchain developer in Germany named Florian Uhde for help with the coding language necessary to get a collection on Ethereum. The two maintained a strict respect for the original Punks when it came to pixel layers and color variations.

Blockchain developer Florian Uhde’s ExpansionPunks avatar. (Courtesy of Florian Uhde)

Addressing subtle biases in gender and other traits across the CryptoPunks collection, ExpansionPunks set out to make a 10,000-Punk collection that was more diverse and inclusive. The originals are about 60/40 male/female; ExpansionPunks are 60/40 female/male. Posvar also added about 2% in his set that have a non-binary gender trait, to better represent evolving societal norms, he said.

Posvar’s dedication to the process is evident in three papers he wrote explaining the why and how of creating ExpansionPunks:

The ExpansionPunks website features a PunkExplorer tool for the original collection and the expanded set where users can dive deep into the many traits of the 20,000 characters in each, filtering for such things as facial hair, skin blemishes, eye shape, hair style and more.

Each ExpansionPunk also has a page of its own which shows the difference between it and the original CryptoPunks. Posvar said it took 100 million calculations to pull off, with a script that perceptually compares every one of the original 10,000 to every one of the new 10,000, one at a time.

Here’s an example showing pixel variation:

Who’s smiling now?

ExpansionPunks launched in August but was slow to generate any meaningful buzz. Posvardidn’t spring for any marketing around his project and for five months the new Punks went largely unnoticed in the world of NFTs.

In early December, some substantial influencers with bigger Twitter followings and bigger crypto wallets finally shared word of ExpansionPunks and gave the collection the attention it needed.

“As soon as some people see certain individuals buying, that’s a signal for them to go buy as well, because that person has proven their success, investing in the right projects that have growth,” Posvar said.

After sitting for months with about 40% of the collection minted on the Ethereum blockchain, ExpansionPunks went to 100% in the span of about 90 minutes.

The 10,000 ExpansionPunks at mint price equals about $2.4 million. But again, Posvar and Uhde have a more inclusive objective in place when it comes to their collection, and distributing that wealth.

“As a society, it’s critically important we ensure everyone feels empowered to join and participate in such a future.”

They set up a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), defined as a member-owned community where funds can be safely directed to specific uses and causes. ExpansionPunks has set 34% of its initial mint revenue toward its DAO, resulting in a substantial $800,000 treasury. Posvar envisions the community writing proposals for all to see, and voting on how to use that money over time, perhaps funding such things as scholarships or to assist emerging NFT and Web3 artists.

In one of his papers, Posvar wrote that “in many ways, our decentralized future is still in the starting blocks” and that the “technologies and paradigms that will define this era are in large part still being discovered.”

“As a society, it’s critically important we ensure everyone feels empowered to join and participate in such a future,” he said. “If we’re to build resilient, next-generation societal constructs, we must do so free of the inherent biases of our entrenched systems.”

Asked whether his three daughters are smiling like the pixelated female faces he added to his new NFT collection, Posvar said yes.

“It’s cool to be able to know that they now see themselves in a Web3 space,” he said.

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