The metaverse could transform everything – commerce, fashion, social media, and almost everything in between. It’s been framed as a utopian dreamworld and a dystopian nightmare. To help get a clearer idea of what the metaverse is and where it might be leading us, The Drum recently spoke with tech futurist, author and strategist Cathy Hackl.
There are few people in the world today who spend as much time thinking about the metaverse as Cathy Hackl. A graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, Hackl has quickly become one of the most influential voices in the tech world. She was recently listed by BigThink as one of the Top 10 Most Influential Women in Tech Right Now, and she’s been featured in major media outlets including 60 Minutes+, Wired and The Wall Street Journal. She’s published two books, which explore various impacts of emergent technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). She’s also the author of a newsletter called ‘Metaverse Weekly’ and the host of two podcasts, one of which is focused on the intersection between marketing and the burgeoning metaverse.
All of this has earned her a sobriquet: The Godmother of the Metaverse.
The Drum recently spoke with Hackl via Zoom to learn more about the current state of the metaverse and what the future may have in store.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the nickname ‘the Godmother of the Metaverse’ come into being?
[Reddit co-founder] Alexis Ohanian tweeted last year, asking which women and folks he should be following in web3. My friend Andrew Schwartz, who works at Nike’s metaverse team, listed a few people and then he tweeted: “Oh, and don’t forget about Cathy Hackl, she’s the Godmother of the Metaverse.” So [that was] the first time anyone ever used that. And someone took a screenshot, they sent it to me, and people started using the term. I wear it as a badge of honor, to be honest.
You’ve described VR as being a single point of entry into the metaverse. Looking five to 10 years out, how pervasive do you think the metaverse will be in the life of the ordinary person, and what do you think the most popular point of entry into that metaverse will be?
Whatever comes after the mobile phone. For many of us, that vision is glasses – AR or spatial computing. But not necessarily VR. So I think whatever comes after the mobile phone and occupies our time will be the most important entry point.
Because there’s Ready Player One, and people see the movie or read the book, they feel like that’s the metaverse – that’s the vision that they’ve been sold. That’s a pretty dystopian view. That’s the whole point of a sci-fi novel like that one ... it’s presenting a dystopian view of the future. We don’t want that kind of world. Right? I always say: I think the future is less Ready Player One, and more seamlessly blending virtual and physical.
So for me, VR is one of the enabling technologies. It’s an entry point into how we’re going to experience the future of the internet. It’s not the only one ... So [in] five to 10 years, depending on on how fast things are built ... what I envision is glasses that replace our phones. And maybe eventually those glasses are able to go between VR and AR ... eventually the idea is that one device will do both. But that is a very hard thing to solve. I think people underestimate how hard it is to put a supercomputer on someone’s face. That’s extremely hard to do, from the battery life, to the optics, to the field of view, to the weight, [to] the ergonomics, the design of it.
So when is that? I’m not sure. We’ll have to see.
So is it fair to say that you’re not envisioning a future in which we’re all walking around wearing giant, uncomfortable VR headsets, and that we’ll eventually have wearable technologies that are sleeker, less cumbersome and more fashionable?
I call it the Ray-Ban moment – when we have glasses that we actually want to put on because they look great [and] we like them ... Are we gonna be walking around with bulky VR headsets? No.
There appears to be a dichotomy emerging between the corporations that are working to build the metaverse, such as Meta, and the dyed-in-the-wool web3 idealists – mostly coders and creators – who are working to build the metaverse in the name of of decentralization. In other words, to take the power to control the flow of information out of the hands of big tech companies.
How do you see that dichotomy evolving over time? Is there room in the world of web3 for both camps?
One of the reasons that Meta might be spending so much money at Reality Labs – [and] obviously, they’re backtracking a little bit – is because, I believe, that they understand that the ad revenue model that made them what they are in web2 is probably not going to be an effective [model] as we head forward ... When I envision the future, I am working toward an open, decentralized metaverse. That is the ultimate goal. That’s what I think is going to be really wonderful and great.
That being said, is the future all open and decentralized? I don’t know. There possibly is going to be some walled gardens over here that people might want to go into for some reason or another ... Are we all wanting to work toward an open and decentralized metaverse where there’s more transparency, where you own your data through the blockchain? Yeah, I hope so. Is it all going to be open and decentralized? I’m not sure ... So that’s what I would envision.
When we talk about specifically Meta ... they’re gonna have to, in some ways, play nice with the web3 community in the open and decentralized space if they want to move away from those ad revenue models that they’ve been so focused on in web2. Web3 and the metaverse are not the same thing. They’re intrinsically linked, but they’re not interchangeable. For me, web3 is how people ... are connected in this future of the internet. [The] metaverse for me is how you experience it. So from a hardware perspective, I feel like Meta’s playing more on the experience side than they are over here, but they’re gonna have to play in web3 [where] things are connected, and they’re gonna have to play nice there.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the overall impacts that the metaverse will have on society?
I’m neither utopian or dystopian. I’m in the middle. I believe that technology will make society better, but there will be a lot of challenges ... I don’t think this is going to slow down ... We need to have hard conversations today about where we’re heading, so we can start getting ahead of the game.
Will there be challenges that we didn’t foresee? Yes. I’m sure there’ll be horrible things potentially that we don’t even know are gonna happen, because there’s no way for us to get ahead of that. But we can have some conversations right now around data, around privacy, around biometric data, around keeping kids safe in these spaces. There are things that we can [do] now to have those very uncomfortable conversations and to try to [figure out how we can] solve for something that’s not even here.
What’s one point of confusion related to the metaverse that you frequently encounter?
There’s so many differing opinions on it. Is it one metaverse? Or is it multiple metaverses?
This is how I explained it to myself: [there’s] the capital ‘M’ Metaverse, like that greater vision of the metaverse, and then within that greater vision there’s metaverse platforms – [those are] metaverses [with a] lowercase ‘m.’ That’s, I think, still up for debate.
The big thing for me is moving away from the hype of words such as ‘metaverse’ and ‘NFTs’ ... and having people just sit down and think about this [as] the future of the internet. How did the internet change your life in web1? How did social media and the connectivity of everything that came with that change it? Where are we heading? How’s [that] going to change as we head into this new iteration of what’s coming?
[We need to step] away from the terms because ... they carry some baggage at times. I think a lot about things like virtual air rights. If things are within eyesight and earshot of me, who owns that, who can post there, what can I hear, what can I see? Right? In the future that we’re heading into, the internet’s gonna be all around me, so I think there’ll be a lot of considerations and a lot of things to think about.
Another misconception – and oh my gosh, this drives me nuts – is when I hear someone talk about the ‘real world’ versus this other part. It’s the physical world and the virtual world. Because if you ask any kid what they’re doing in Roblox and Fortnight, [they’ll say] they’re playing with their friends. And those are real friends, even though they’re gaming. My son’s first concert was Lil Nas X in Roblox – it’s very real to him. He talks about it in first-person. Right? During the pandemic, you had Zoom Hanukkah or Zoom Christmas. And just because it happened on Zoom didn’t make it less real. You weren’t there physically, but you still have those memories.
[We need to change] how we sometimes talk about where we’re heading; it’s not [the] world versus the virtual world, it’s [the] physical world and [the] virtual world. It’s not a ‘versus.’