You may have heard of the metaverse — but let’s be honest: do you really know what that means? If you’re unsure, you’re not alone: The metaverse is hard to pinpoint. It doesn’t even have a definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Cathy Hackl, tells Freethink. A “Chief Metaverse Officer,” Hackl is a professionally trained futurist and strategist, who has worked with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Magic Leap, and HTC VIVE, and helps brands understand how this new paradigm will affect their businesses.
If you think of Web 1.0 as the internet that connected us to information, and Web 2.0 as the social-media iteration, which connects people, Web 3.0 (which we’re now entering) is connecting people, places, and things, says Hackl.
“Sometimes, these people, places, and things can be in a fully virtual or synthetic environment, or they could be in a physical world with some level of augmentation,” she said. “It’s in the nascent phase.” I spoke to Hackl about the role of gaming in the metaverse, how it can change our sense of identity, and other subjects.
Here is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
So what, exactly, is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a further convergence of our physical and digital lives. It’s about shared virtual experiences.
It is in some ways, our digital lifestyles are catching up to our physical lives. It’s about breaking free from two dimensions into a fully 3D environment. So it can be a fully virtual environment, whether it’s in VR or it could be a level of augmentation in our real world, we’re actually seeing 3D assets in front of us. Potentially wearable, like glasses, or those sorts of things.
I have a very expansive view of the metaverse. Beyond Ready Player One and Oasis, which seem very dystopic. My view encompasses both fully virtual worlds and our real world with some level of augmentation.
Are we there yet?
Not yet. The metaverse is being slowly created, we’re all working on it. It’s being activated, it’s being enabled by different technologies. Some of those technologies are AR and VR, AI, 5G, blockchain, incredibly important, edge computing, all these different things. AR and VR to me are an entry point [to the metaverse].
“If the internet and social media changed your business or changed the way you interact with people, then you should be paying attention to what 3.0 and the metaverse will do, because it will change those things as well.”Cathy Hackl
And then within that greater metaverse, you have metaworlds or small metaverses of sorts within that world.
If we’re not there, why is it critical to understand the metaverse now?
It’ll change the way we engage with information, the way we engage with the internet. It’ll be a critical part of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives, and for businesses, it’ll change the way consumers of the future engage with brands.
If the internet and social media changed your business or changed the way you interact with people, then you should be paying attention to what 3.0 and the metaverse will do, because it will change those things as well.
Can you talk a little bit more about the role of AR and VR, specifically, in the metaverse?
It’s about how we engage with technology and the interfaces we use. I’m talking to you on my phone, which is a rectangle, or I might be on my computer, which is a rectangle, and a mouse —but when we get further into that greater metaverse concept, we will probably be engaging with technology through some type of wearable that will put data in front of me.
We’re going to be able to see that data through our glasses. A robot, an autonomous car, or something like that is going to see it in ones and zeros. But we as humans are not going to see it in ones and zeros — it’ll be a hologram, or an informational, something that tells me to ‘go this way.’
Will the metaverse be universal? Or is it something you opt-in to?
It will affect everyone, because it’s the successor of the internet. Productivity is going to get better, so you’re going to have better productivity across the globe. Some people might choose to not necessarily engage in commerce or socializing in the metaverse, but I think most people will choose to do so. Especially younger generations — my children already engage socially inside video game platforms like Roblox.
That’s where they see their friends at school, and then they come home and play video games with them. During the pandemic, they would go to birthday parties inside Roblox for their friends. And they would ask me to buy them a new shirt, so they could wear it to a birthday party in Roblox. Younger generations understand these virtual spaces, they think in 3D and to them, because what happens in a virtual space doesn’t make it less real to them.
What technology will become obsolete and outdated because of the metaverse?
Phones will be around for a while, but we’ll slowly migrate to some type of wearable. Maybe some people will consume [information] on their phones and other people in wearables, but it will change.
There’s only so much more innovation you can put into a phone at this point. It’s like, add more cameras, new apps. The tech will depend on what we’re doing. Do I think we’re going to be wearing bulky VR headsets and walking around with those? No, I don’t think that that’s necessarily what it’s going to be.
How do you think we might express ourselves in the metaverse in ways that we can’t right now?
It’ll allow us to unlock certain levels of creativity that we couldn’t tap into before, because you can make the impossible possible. And for me as a woman, I can choose to be whoever I want in a virtual metaverse. That is if it’s fully virtual — I don’t necessarily have to show up as myself. I can be taller, I can be thinner. I can have purple hair. I can decide one day to be a unicorn with a horn on fire. Our identities will be fluid in that sense, and we’ll go from being more fantastical versions of ourselves to be more holographic forms of ourselves, depending on what the setting is. But you started to see that, when I watched a show like Alter Ego.
“Our avatars become emotional surrogates of who we are and allow us to express ourselves in totally different ways.”Cathy Hackl
I look at how these singers are expressing themselves and saying, “I can be in this alter ego, this avatar that I’m using, is an emotional surrogate. It’s an emotional surrogate of who I am and I can express myself in ways I’ve never been able to do before.” Right now, you’re sending text messages with emojis and those emojis have meaning. They represent messages, and people understand what you’re saying by just saying the emojis.
Our avatars become emotional surrogates of who we are and allow us to express ourselves in totally different ways. And it doesn’t always have to be limited by the physics of nature and the physics of the body, the ways that we are in the physical world.
So you mentioned Roblox — what is the role you see of gaming and virtual entertainment in the metaverse?
Gaming and virtual entertainment play a very big role in enabling the metaverse. So sometimes, people will first engage with a metaverse light, with a glimpse of the metaverse through a gaming platform. So whether it is my son going to a Lil Nas X concert in Roblox, or a teenager going to Ariana Grande’s concert in Fortnite, and buying the skin and doing all the different things, I think that gaming allows people to be a part of this.
NFT games are also allowing for what’s called play to earn, which means that you’re no longer just playing for points. You’re actually getting paid in some ways for how much you’re gaming, and your experiences, and all the things that you do. I think the big part here is that along with gaming is the term community.
If you’re a gamer, you probably have a community, you play with friends, you start to build a community around something that’s of interest to you. And I see that in the metaverse, and just where we’re heading, community and authenticity are king, and it’s a lot about collaboration, co-creation and enabling those things. And I think that’s where there’s a big opportunity for creators.
“The idea of an open metaverse is that there is no one company controlling everything.”Cathy Hackl
You’ve got someone like FEWOCiOUS, he’s 18. So FEWOCiOUS, he does a lot of virtual design, those sorts of things. And he partnered with RTFKT Studio to launch virtual sneakers. These virtual sneakers sold out. There were 600 virtual sneakers that sold out within 7 minutes, and sold $3 million. When would FEWOCiOUS, a person under 20 years old, have had a chance to partner with New Balance or one of the sneaker brands to launch a collection?
So it’s allowing creators to be part of this newer opportunity of creator economy and benefit and really benefit from the creativity and the work they’re doing.
Is there any kind of infrastructure? Or how could the metaverse hypothetically be governed or controlled?
The idea of an open metaverse is that there is no necessarily control or one company controlling everything. In the Oasis, like in Ready Player One, you had the Oasis, which is controlled by corporations. I don’t think that’s necessarily what we all want.
What I would say is when it comes to the infrastructure to enable that greater vision of the metaverse does not currently exist, not here yet. Because you’re going to need more than 5G. You’re going to need 6G. You’re going to need different levels of edge computing. You’re going to need so many different things that do not currently exist.
Who is currently involved in building this world right now?
The game engines — so both Unity and Unreal and Epic Games — are very big players. Roblox has seen immense growth. You’ve got Facebook as well. I wouldn’t discard Amazon Web Services. I think cloud computing’s going to be critical, but I think their game tech side is pretty interesting.
You’ll see an acceleration of some of these companies and some of the technologies and things that they’re going to be bringing to market. And then you have metaverse foreign companies, like The Fabricants, and Artifact, and those sorts that are up and coming and are really interesting to look at.
How might businesses operate in the metaverse?
In the metaverse, a lot of things have to do with digital ownership. My children already understand digital ownership of goods in the platforms that they play on. They already know they own this or that for their avatar. They can dress their avatar with Stella McCartney sunglasses, or whatever it is. So they already have a concept of digital ownership and I think that that changes for businesses the perspective of it isn’t just about activating, doing some fun marketing activation that is metaverse-related, but also thinking about the long-term strategies. And does this become a new revenue opportunity for them? It depends on the brand and depends on what they sell, but yeah, it does change business.
With NFTs and the blockchain, there’s a huge element of being able to have NFTs that give you access to certain things that other people might not have, or belong to certain clubs or I’m a Bored Ape, I’m a Mutant Ape, so I’m part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, is being able to potentially own IP. Being able to own IP of what could become the future Loony Toons, or who knows what it becomes?
I think that there’s some amazing opportunities to be able to be part of some of these groups that will create future IP.