Where Physical and Digital Merge
BY Future of StoryTelling — March 1, 2023

Chief Metaverse Officer at Journey and “Godmother of the Metaverse” Cathy Hackl is paying close attention to the metaverse– and if you’re a creator or an entrepreneur, you should be too. On this episode of the FoST Podcast, Cathy shares how she defines the metaverse, what opportunities it’s creating for commerce and creativity, and how she’s working towards a protopian world both physical and virtual.

Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:

Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts  |  Stitcher  |  iHeartRadio

Additional Links:

     Buy Into the Metaverse 

     Cathy's Website and LinkedIn


     Whatsapp Metaverse and Web3 Community

    "Is Direct to Avatar the Next Direct to Consumer?"

Episode Transcript

Charlie Melcher:

Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder of the Future of Storytelling. Glad to have you with me for this episode of the FoST podcast. The Metaverse has become an often used but misunderstood term since it was originally coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow CrashWhat began as a fictional concept has evolved into something that we're now seeing materialized in very real ways, with billions of dollars being spent on developing and popularizing new virtual worlds. But what actually defines the metaverse, and what might it become for storytellers, for businesses, and for humanity as a whole?

Our guest today, Cathy Hackl, has been working in this space for so long that she's been called the Godmother of the Metaverse. She's a thought leader, keynote speaker and media personality, who's been featured by CNN, Fox Business, the Wall Street Journal, and many, many others. As the Chief Metaverse Officer for the influential innovation and design consultancy Journey, Kathy's a sought after consultant and advisor who works with the world's top brands on Metaverse and Web three strategies, NFT's, gaming, virtual fashion, and how to extend their brands into virtual spaces.

Her clients include Walmart, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and many more. Her most recent book Into The Metaverse is all about how the up and coming virtual and physical marketplace will revolutionize business, and I'm excited to talk to her today about how it could revolutionize creativity as well. Please join me in welcoming Cathy Hackl.

Cathy, it's such a pleasure to have you on the Future Storytelling Podcast. Welcome.


Cathy Hackl:

I am thrilled to be here.


Charlie Melcher:

So I, in doing my homework about you, realize that you are a very serious storyteller. And you even call yourself a storyteller. Tell us a little bit about your background as a storyteller.


Cathy Hackl:

Yeah, so I feel like I've always been a storyteller my whole life. It's always been something that I loved. Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. So I grew up between Costa Rica and different countries because my dad was a diplomat, but when I was in living in Costa Rica, I remember we had an American journalist come to our school to talk about the coverage he was doing of the Central American Wars during the Cold War, and I said, wow, a journalist, they tell stories for a living.

I was so impressed with what that was. I was like, oh, there's an actual job where you tell stories for a living. I mean, my parents were lawyers, so that's not something that I was in touch with, but when I met this journalist, I was like, wow. So yeah, worked in media and in journalism for many years with many different companies. Even got nominated for an Emmy, but I've been telling stories, I mean my whole life.


Charlie Melcher:

And so you went from journalism. I know you had a stint with HTC Vive, and then also some time with Magic Leap. Tell us a little bit about those.


Cathy Hackl:

So I arrived in technology kind of by accident. There's no straight line, it's all loops. So worked in journalism for many years, eventually moved on to more on the corporate side, the business side. Got introduced to live video. I was one of the first people on Meerkat in Periscope, so anyone out there, they know what that is, rings a bell. First Live vi- before you could go live on Instagram and Facebook.

That's where I started to get connected with Silicon Valley, with Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. And through the work I was doing in live video, I got invited to a conference, and I was there and I got invited to put a virtual reality headset on. I was like, ah, I don't know. I didn't feel comfortable. It was almost 10 years ago, but I did, I put the headset on. I was transported into a virtual solitary confinement cell in an experience that was focused on solitary confinement. And.

Within a couple of minutes I took the headset off. I was mean, I was claustrophobic, but I felt this moment of empathy, compassion, I don't know how to describe it, and I said, this is the future of storytelling on some level. I don't know what it is, but this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Once again, getting introduced on something I didn't know exist, and I said, this is it. I got on that rocket and it's been going ever since.

And like you mentioned, HTC Vive, Magic Leap. I mean, it's just been, I don't know. I feel like I'm not even on a rocket. It's like a high speed train.


Charlie Melcher:

And so now you've found yourself really at the center of what everyone's referring to as the metaverse. I mean, I've literally heard you referred to as the godmother of the Metaverse. How did you decide to become a Chief Metaverse officer?


Cathy Hackl:

I kind of got introduced to the term metaverse when I was at Magic Leap. We were introduced to this idea and this concept of the Metaverse and what could become that convergence of physical and digital. I was working at Magic Leap. Like I said, I was part of a big layoff that they had a couple of years ago. Gutted me. I was married, in my mind, I was married to the company, so it was a divorce that I didn't want, and I feel like a lot of people are going through that right now with the jobs that they've lost.

But I said, okay, well, I've got some time to think through this. What do I really want to do? I applied to a few jobs, got hired at Amazon Web Services, went to work there. But when I was there, I did learn a lot about cloud computing and it was a great experience, but I felt there was something else in me. I wanted to build my own company.

So through the work I was doing, I eventually left AWS and created the Futures Intelligence Group, and started to do a lot of consultancy around metaverse, virtual fashion, gaming. My first client was actually Ralph Lauren, and I helped and I helped create their foundational metaverse strategy. They've done great things.

And then through the work I was doing with a lot of these large brands, just trying to, almost like a Sherpa in some ways, kind of trying to help them figure out what is this next iteration of the internet? Where are we heading? I said, well, I feel like I'm a Chief Metaverse officer. I said, I feel like that describes who I am. Once again, finding words, describe what I see myself being. I gave myself that title, and then eventually my company got acquired by Journey. And when I was talking to and Andy Zimmerman, the CEO of Journey, I said, I definitely want to come in and I want to be acquired, but my title is non-negotiable.

I said, I am a Chief Maneuvers Officer. That's truly who I feel I am. So if you're going to bring me into the Journey family, I have to make sure I keep my title. Yeah, I mean, once again, it has to do with who, how we present ourselves, who we think we are, what are we doing, what describes what we do.


Charlie Melcher:

Well, it's such a buzzword these days, metaverse, and some people throw it around and have very different ideas of what that means. What does it mean for you?


Cathy Hackl:

To me, it is the successor state to today's mobile internet. It is a further convergence of our physical and virtual lives. It's a version of the internet that is more immersive, more persistent, more social, more 3D. And to me, it's important to mention, it's about virtual shared experiences that happen both in virtual spaces, but will also happen in the physical world. That part just hasn't been fully enabled. It is enabled by many different technologies. So it's not just virtual reality, just because someone's already player one, we should not want that to be the metaverse.

It's pretty dystopic, and it is not one single company. So yeah, it's kind of where we're heading. It is kind of the next iteration of the internet, and people are like, why should I care? I'm like, well, the internet affects your career. Did it affect your business? Then you might want to be paying attention to this next iteration and how things are about to change and shift.


Charlie Melcher:

I love that description that it's a convergence of the physical and digital lives, and it's a continuation, as you say. Give us some examples of how we're already converging our digital and physical lives.


Cathy Hackl:

Yeah, I mean, my best examples I think are, especially for my kids, I've got three kids. They're all considered Gen Alpha, which is what comes after Gen Z, gen Alpha or 12 year olds, and they're still being born to this day. I usually say they're my best window into the future. I did hear a saying once. I was like, you want to know about the future? Talk to a kindergarten teacher. I was like, oh, interesting.

So I give an example from them. My son's first concert was during the pandemic, and people were like, what? How is that even possible? We were all stuck at home. Well, it was little Naas and Roblox. It was a concert inside a gaming platform. He says, I was there, I saw Naas. And I think the important part here is that, to that younger generation, especially, just because it happens in a virtual space, does not make it less real. It's very real to them. If he plays Roblox or Fortnite or whatever it is, and he fights with one of his buddies, when he shows up at school, he's still upset. It doesn't end because the game ended.

So yeah, I think it's changing that chip and that mindset that maybe for some of the older generations, it's like they're two separate things. For them, it's just the same. It's just virtual and physical. To my kids, the way that their avatar shows up is equally important, and I would even tell you that I think I spend more money outfitting their avatars than their physical selves, because that's what they want every Christmas or birthday.

It's like they want Robux, the digital currency inside the game, whereas if I take them to Target, they'll roll their eyes and be like, oh, I don't want to go shopping, mom. So yeah, I think it's really interesting. And even if you think about kids, my kids will be like, what did, what's Grandma sending us for Christmas? And I'll be like, oh, it's $20, whatever it is, $40, whatever. And they'll immediately make the conversion to Robux, to digital currency. They can't do that with Sterling or Swiss Franks, but they can definitely do that with Robux.

So yeah, it's a very interesting world we're going into.


Charlie Melcher:

That actually begs the question about fashion, and I know this is an area of real interest for you, but it seems that the fashion brands have been some of the early adopters and leaders into the Metaverse space?


Cathy Hackl:

Yeah, I think it's actually kind of poetic and beautiful, that it is the fashion brands that are the ones really innovating out there, pushing the tech, taking risks, and this is why I think so. It's because I think Web One, it was a lot of corporate businesses like pushing the envelope, enterprise.

Web Two, I mean, let's be honest, it was probably adult entertainment pushing a lot of it. But I think to me, it's very poetic that it's fashion. We all make fashion choices every day. Culture is very tied to fashion. Gaming is tied to fashion. Identity is tied to fashion. And it's these fashion brands. And I find that beautiful.

I wrote an article back in like 2020 and it asked the question: is direct to Avatar, the next direct to consumer, and this is a term that someone called Ryan Gill brought to me. I think it's the first time the term was ever used in media. Now you see it in a lot of places. But that article really sparked something in the fashion industry. I had seed level executives from big fashion brands and conglomerates reaching out and saying, you put into words what I'm starting to see.

But yeah, I mean, I'm fascinated by this fusion between physical fashion, virtual fashion. I have quote unquote famously said that the world's next Coco Chanel is probably a 10-year-old girl designing skins in Roblox. I wholeheartedly believe that.


Charlie Melcher:

I've heard you describe Web 1.0 as this place where information was shared. That was really what we were being connected to. And in Web Two it was to each other. It was social, it was connecting to people. And then Web Three, or this era that we're currently in, you've said it's connecting us to people, places, and things.

And obviously fashion becomes part of those things. Having you just say this idea that Web One was information, Web Two was sex.

I'm thinking is that maybe Web Three is more about creativity?


Cathy Hackl:

Yeah, I think it's about unleashing human creativity in ways we've never seen, and unleashing communication, like you mentioned, in ways we've never seen. And I also think that the fashion brands saw what was happening with street culture, what was happening with sneaker culture. They were looking at all these subculture groups and understanding that culture was being made that impacted fashion.

Gaming. I mean, gaming is impacting fashion. So I think that they understood that. They saw that early on. They said, okay, if this is truly where our next generation of consumers, and I don't necessarily like that word of audiences is, and how do we start to reach and how do we start to create brand recognition? Gucci was one of the first brands to launch on Roblox, and someone would say, why Gucci? Because a lot of the younger players there wanted to see Gucci in Roblox, right? So there's this really interesting moment happening right now.


Charlie Melcher:

Do you think that the Metaverse, as it's unfolding, is really geared for commerce? Is it a place for business?


Cathy Hackl:

A hundred percent. So in my new book that just came out, it is focused on the business opportunities.


Charlie Melcher:

Let me give a little plug here. Into The Metaverse, I've just read it. It's wonderful. Highly recommend it. So yeah, so sorry to interrupt with the shameless plug.

Cathy Hackl:

But it is about the business opportunities of the metaverse today and into the future. I mean, it is going to revolutionize a lot of ways that we connect with audiences, that we make money in some ways. I view this vision of metaverse commerce, an evolution of commerce. We all know how to do physical to physical commerce. We'll go to any store, come out with stuff we don't need. We all know how to do that.

You know, you added digital that gave us e-commerce. But e-commerce is still a kind of wonky, it's not that exciting. Even if you add a little augmented reality, it's fun, but it's not a hundred percent there. But then you add virtual to virtual commerce, which is happening in gaming spaces for decades, and it's thriving. Billions of dollars being spent on virtual goods. So that's exciting, and it's really sexy. People want to talk about that.

I add another dimension to this, and I go into, okay, well what does this mean if we're merging physical and virtual? And I see these two models right now, which to me are virtual to physical and physical to virtual commerce. So I am in Roblox, I am in Fortnite, I am in Pokemon Go. I am in a virtual experience, and I am doing something, and maybe I unlock something, or maybe I buy something that unlocks something physical for me, whether it's a box that arrives in my house or whether it is a ticket to a special event. I see this kind of working.

And then physical to virtual. I am at a festival, I am in a store, I am in school, whatever it is. I do something in my, whatever it is in the store, or I buy something where I participate in something that unlocks a virtual asset for me. And I'm starting to see a lot of these new really airily, nascent commerce models start to be tested. They haven't really been done at scale, per se, but I think we're starting to get there as the rails for those commerce transactions are created.


Charlie Melcher:

I know that you, through the work you're doing at Journey, have been helping companies figure out their strategy, and literally help them to build it. Tell us a little bit about the project you did for Walmart.


Cathy Hackl:

Yeah, that was one of our biggest projects. I started advising Walmart more than a year ago, a lot more than that, on Metaverse strategies and how to plan for the future. And along the way, we got the chance to build two experiences for Walmart in Roblox.

We launched both experiences on the same day in September of last year. That had never been done. Two large giant builds for one big brand at the same time in September. It's been very successful. Right now at this moment, it has more than, get this, more than 12 million visits, and it has been more than 60,000 times.


Charlie Melcher:

Wow. Describe it for people who haven't had a chance to go visit it.


Cathy Hackl:

So Walmart land specifically is, and I don't want people who are like, because they're listening to this, I don't want them to think that we grabbed Walmart and we replicated the same IRL or physical version in the Metaverse. That is not the idea. We should not want that.

We actually reimagined what could it look like if Walmart is a gaming space, an experience that is catering to the players, what could it look like? So it's a central hub where people kind of come in, but then there's different, they're called aisles, playing on island, but also shopping aisles. So there's different aisles. So there's electric aisle, which is the entertainment aisle. We do concerts there. I helped produce one of their virtual concerts, which was really fantastic. There's the self-expression aisle, which is focused more on beauty and fashion. Every one of these aisles has different stories, different things to do.

There's different obstacle courses or obs. It's definitely not your grandparent's Walmart. This is completely different and it's super fun. And the reality is like it's fun. We would not have 12 million visits if it weren't fun. And there's just been a lot of really cool tie-ins. So during Christmas, for example, you could buy a gift card in Walmart, a physical gift card in a physical Walmart for Robux, for the currency for Roblox, which is very popular with kids. It was a very popular stocking stuffer last year. And if you bought it at Walmart, you could actually unlock a virtual asset in the game that you could only get if you had that.

So yeah, we're starting to see all these really interesting tie-ins between physical and virtual. It's been very successful. And for a brand like Walmart, it was just a wonderful way to enter one of these spaces and focus on next gen customers.


Charlie Melcher:

I wonder if there's a little bit of a conflict, though, because I know that one of the promises of the Metaverse is this idea of decentralized. It's a place where community ownership will thrive. And is there any conflict there with sort of corporations stepping in and building or owning big pieces?


Cathy Hackl:

I think it depends on who you ask, because to me, the metaverse is enabled by many, many different technologies. One of them to me is blockchain, and then that subset NFTs, or whatever want to call them nowadays because that's out of fashion, apparently. But blockchain to me as a component, the question here is the future fully decentralized? Is it only an open metaverse?

And doing the work that I do, and living in DC and talking to government and everything, I realize the following. It's like there will be a component of it that is open and decentralized that might be community owned that might have that Web Three ethos, but there will remain, we will need wall gardens for some reason or another.

So this is how I see the future. It'll be closed wall garden experiences or whatever. They are a hybrid model that is somewhere in between, and then in more open-end, centralized, right? So the Metaverse will be not just one single open, decentralized space. It'll be encompassed into different ways. It'll be accessed differently depending on what it is that you are accessing.

We cannot be naive and think that it will only be open and decentralized. That's what a lot of us are working towards. We love that idea. I love the concept of data ownership. I think it's going to be great for humanity, but there might be times where you might need walled gardens for defense or whatever it is, or in some corporations might not want their family of apps or their family of games or whatever it is, to be an open and decentralized.

So yeah, I mean, that's how I kind of approach it because I don't think we can be naive and think it's only going to be open and decentralized.


Charlie Melcher:

There was a quote in your book that I really loved, so I wrote it down, I'm going to read it back to you. The metaverse is about breaking down walled gardens to open up virtual worlds. I just thought that was very poetically said, and I do think it reflects that slightly utopian view that many of us have, that Web Three could enable a kind of community driven, own your own data, be able to create communities with real ownership in what they build.

But then I wonder at times, are this the same kind of naive utopianism that we had with Web One, where we thought the internet was going to all of a sudden create this open sharing of information around the world and solve all of these problems of governments and hasn't really worked out, has it?

So it's one of the reasons too, why, for example, I remember talking with Margaret Atwood on the podcast about just why is it that so much fiction is dystopian? Why are storytellers always telling us stories about the end of the world, basically. Where are the stories that make us inspired? Maybe more Star Trek, to all live together in harmony in a universe that celebrates diversity and inclusion?


Cathy Hackl:

The term metaverse comes from a sci-fi novel written by Neal Stephenson, who was at Magic Leap when I was there, and now he has his own metaverse startup called LAMINA1. But in essence, I mean, it comes from a dystopic sci-fi novel, right? So the term itself carries with it a lot of baggage, could say. I mean, I think it's become polluted in some ways. The term itself I think makes people feel something, whether it's really, really exciting or whether it's like, oh my goodness, this is bad.

I encounter those people all the time. So it is about how we tell stories. What I will tell you is whenever I get up on stage, and I speak all across the globe, I always get this reaction from people. I'll come off stage and they'll be like, you made me feel a little bit better. You make me feel like, okay, it doesn't have to be ready player one. It might be a really interesting opportunity. So I love that because I feel like I can bring almost a different vision, and explain it in ways that people can wrap their heads around it, understand and say, okay, well maybe there is an opportunity here, and I don't want to be fully utopic because, God, technology is neither good nor bad. It's neutral. It's what we humans do with it.

I have to remain optimistic as a mother of three children, also, that things are going to go better. It's my hope.


Charlie Melcher:

I'm also an optimist. I'm not necessarily a huge believer in this term metaverse, because again, I think it's been co-opted or the versions of it that we've seen, ready player one as you mentioned, seemed pretty dismal. But what I'm excited about, and tell me what you think of this is this opportunity to use technology to be more human, that ultimately it enables us to do things that are more natural to who we are as a species.

I don't think using your thumbs and leaning into your phone is the way we're meant to communicate in the world. But if technology can enable me to talk to you with full gesture, and my voice and my facial expressions and my body, if these new innovations can enable me to dance and to sing and to act, and have that be something that you can share from somewhere else in the world, experience without having to be sitting next to me, then I think that's playing to our strengths as for humanity, and will ultimately accrue to a positive outcome, better education, better empathy, building more peace and understanding.


Cathy Hackl:

I love that. And to that point, I mean, you've probably heard the term story living, the same version just flipped. But yeah, story living, story doing, and allowing these emerging technologies and allowing us to do story living and story doing. So I love that concept, and I love the idea of us moving away from looking down at our screens and actually looking up, and looking people in the eye, in the new campfire, right, through technology. Maybe it's some type of wearable glasses. We'll still have data in front of us, but we'll be looking at someone's eyes, which I think is refreshing.

It's something that you said was really, I think impacted me. And I want to kind of talk a little bit about that, is how I view the work that a lot of us are doing in these spaces, as we're responsible for maintaining history, maintaining the stories of today for future generations.

So I always say that those of us working in the industry, we're creating the printing press of the future. And what I mean by this is I've done amazing projects where we're using some of these technologies like volumetric video for historical preservation. There's beautiful examples of, for example, Holocaust survivors being scanned, et cetera. I've worked on some myself around Native American culture. One of them was around a dance, one of the dances that they had that is very ceremonial, very important to them, to the specific tribe, and people are starting to forget it. And we did 3D performance capture of that, and it was beautiful.

Languages as well. You could watch someone speak in a flat screen, but sometimes there's movements of the mouth and the teeth and the tongue that, if you can't capture that in 3D, you start to lose that. So these technologies, I mean, beyond the dystopic side of it, these technologies are powerful.

I don't know, I'm really interested in the historical preservation of stories in 3D as we head into the future.


Charlie Melcher:

One of the things that I really focus on is just the shift from two dimensions of three dimensions, that we're getting out of the flatland of the printed page or the confines of our screens into this three-dimensional world that will enable us to be fully embodied, and have a full range of human experience, including all our senses, instead of just our eyes and our ears.

We're bodies in space, and there are, depending on who you ask, 20, 30 different senses that are in our bodies, not just five. And even of those five, we only have really focused on two for so long, our eyes and our ears.

And so there's just so much that's going to open up in terms of what we can experience.


Cathy Hackl:

A hundred percent. I mean, I think there's a lot there, and when you're talking about the senses, involving all the senses. Just like you have had a chance to demo a lot of these things. So smell the redwoods, that had Tribeca like five years ago or whatever.

I was in VR, I was able to smell redwoods. I've been able to shake hands with someone that is in a completely part different part of the world, but virtually we're shaking hands and I can feel their hand. Those things always, I find so incredibly interesting because they humanize the experience. The virtual layer of it becomes humanized.


Charlie Melcher:

The thing that I always say is that the storytellers, we wield such incredible superpowers that it's up to us to use them with a moral compass, to use them for good. And that's how we're going to create the protopian future as opposed to the dystopian one.


Cathy Hackl:

And I will say something that I, as a woman in tech, and as one of these people that is very, very publicly out there speaking about the metaverse and talking about this future version of the internet. I feel a very, very, very big responsibility towards other women, towards other people of color, to show that the future can be built by other people.

It doesn't have to be the same people we've seen build the future. And that to me is really important. It's one of my main messages. I take the godmother of the Metaverse title that was given to me by someone at Nike very seriously. And yeah, one of my missions, on a personal level, is to show a different face, a different face of technology. And yeah, just to be an inspiration for a lot of these up and coming creators, builders.

I always say in the metaverse, we're all world builders and now is our time to build. I want to be an inspiration for those people that are building towards that future.


Charlie Melcher:

Well, you are, and we thank you for that. I want to encourage people to read your book again, Into The Metaverse, and to listen to your podcast, which I've been subscribing to and think is wonderful, and just so excited for all of the important work that you continue to do, Cathy, and the way that you're not just a role model, but also an evangelist.

So I look forward to visiting you in your virtual garden, and to follow you wherever you go. So thank you so much for being on the podcast.


Cathy Hackl:

Thanks for inviting me. It was a pleasure. And I guess I'll see you in the Metaverse.


Charlie Melcher:

My warm thanks to Cathy Hackl for joining me on today's podcast. To learn more about her work as Chief Metaverse Officer at Journey, and to order her book Into The Metaverse, please visit the links in the description below.

My sincere thanks to you, our listeners. If you enjoyed the show, please consider giving us a five star rating wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews are greatly appreciated. You can also become part of the Future of Storytelling family by signing up for our free monthly newsletter at fost.org.

The FoST podcast is produced by Melcher Media, in collaboration with our talented production partner Charts & Leisure. I hope to see you again soon for another deep dive into the world of storytelling.

Until then, please be safe, stay strong, and story on.