Cathy Hackl: a day in the life of a chief metaverse officer
The slew of ‘chief metaverse officers’ hired by big brands the world over this past year has led to some collective head-scratching as people ponder what they actually do all day. For The Drum’s Tech Takeover deep dive, where we cover everything from AI to web3, we catch up with the godmother of the metaverse herself to find out.
Cathy Hackl, CEO and founder, Journey
Dubbed the godmother of the metaverse, Cathy Hackl is a globally recognized metaverse expert, tech futurist and top business executive with deep experience working in metaverse-related fields at companies including HTC Vive, Magic Leap and Amazon Web Services.
Her consultancy, the Futures Intelligence Group, was acquired by Journey after just 10 months and she is now co-founder and chief metaverse officer at the innovation and design consultancy, leading its metaverse studio and working with top brands on metaverse/web3 strategies, NFTs, gaming and virtual fashion. She is also the chair of judges for The Drum Awards for the Metaverse.
We catch up with her to find out more.
‘What I do’
No two days are the same, Hackl tells us. ”I still do a lot of work around virtual worlds, but a lot of the conversations I’m getting pulled into with our clients or with our company are now around generative AI. We have a chief innovation officer who is very knowledgeable, but I get pulled in to make sense of how we start to create a product offering, or what it means in the grand scheme of things when we’re building virtual worlds.”
The job involves a lot of travel, she says, with a lot of meetings with clients and brands. ”There’s also a high education component, whether that’s on a stage at SXSW or meeting one-on-one with a client or being at an innovation hackathon for a specific brand.”
On other days, Hackl might find herself involved in more physical projects, for Journey’s architecture design firm for example. ”The client might be like, ’We want a virtual component to this, so what do we do? Is it a virtual twin? Is it AR?’ That’s where I get pulled in.”
Heading up the metaverse/gaming studio at Journey means there’s also a lot to be done day-to-day with the people who report directly to her, she says, including daily check-ins with them as well as check-ins with clients and with partners. ”There’s a lot of communication. The chief metaverse officer doesn’t have to be a communicator by training, but they need to be good at communicating as this is such a misunderstood space.”
‘How I got here’
Hackl’s road to the metaverse took off while working at HTC Vive in 2017 as the tech company’s VR evangelist. From there, she went on to various roles at Amazon Web Services, Magic Leap and Oculus VR, while writing for Forbes and publishing her book, Into the Metaverse, which led to the formation of Futures Intelligence Group where she coined the title ’chief metaverse officer’.
When the group was acquired by Journey, Hackl’s title was non-negotiable. “That’s what I am and we’d figure it out along the way.”
The metaverse, she says, is a rapidly evolving space requiring a person who can bridge the gap between the technical and business sides. “Whether you call it chief metaverse officer and it lives in the C-suite or whether it is a head of the metaverse in crypto, at the end of the day, what we’re all trying to do is figure out where we’re heading.
“The metaverse is not one technology, its many technologies converging together and it requires someone who has a broad understanding to guide clients into the future state of the internet.
“I love it because it’s challenging. I feel like I’m truly pioneering and in the trenches. I’m not inheriting a long-running role with a set idea of how to do it. We’re building it.”
‘What I’ve worked on’
The brands that Hackl has helped innovate within the metaverse range from fashion to retail and even entire cities. She worked with Nike early on in her career, created Ralph Lauren’s foundational metaverse strategy and introduced it to Roblox and Zepeto, as well as formed Clinique’s first NFT strategy.
For one of their biggest clients, the retail giant Walmart, Hackl and the Journey team created two giant Roblox builds.
Increasingly, she finds herself working with cities and countries and has recently been helping Orlando, Florida understand its positioning regarding the metaverse. “It has labeled this itself as the metacenter and is positioning itself as one of the leading physical centers for the potential of the metaverse.”
She calls it ”the simulation capital of the world,” explaining that a lot of simulation happens there. ”There’s a defense component to it, but there are other parts of it with Universal, Disney etc. It has the largest amount of Unity licenses. EA is opening up a campus. Some of Disney’s campuses are going to move over there.
“If you look at Miami, it’s all about crypto, while Orlando is focusing more on AR/VR talent and gaming talent, so it becomes like a corridor of metaverse and web3 innovation.”
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As with all media-generated hype, sparks inevitably fizzle out and Hackl admits that she had expected to see more chief metaverse officers by now. “Obviously there’s a bit of a metaverse winter of sorts, aligned with a web3 winter with everything that’s happening in the economy. And in hindsight, it’s not a bad thing because there was way too much hype.”
There are, she says, still a lot of people inside brands and organizations that are leading the way on the metaverse, they just might not have that title and their budgets might have been reeled in. ”A lot of NFT projects that brands had been really keen on are having to take a step back. And we’re definitely getting asked more questions on how you define ROI.”
Instead, it is generative AI that is having its moment and Hackl says that while there are chief AI officers out there, they tend to be more technical and not so much up on the broader business connectivity side of things. ”Some of us that are in that chief metaverse role are being tasked with understanding generative AI and what it means for our companies. So, what are the tools we need to use? What tools would we recommend to clients?
”It’s starting to get to that point where we’re bringing together physical touchpoints to virtual touchpoints, so it’s about how you start to really connect these two so they make sense to the company, to the CFO, to everyone within an organization. Then you have generative AI coming into the mix and they have to get the budget to do stuff with that, but where do they get it from?
”There are more questions being asked and that’s not a bad thing.”
‘My most memorable moment’
Her time leading metaverse projects has had more than a few unforgettable moments, but producing a virtual concert for Walmart inside Walmart Land particularly stands out. ”I went to LA, helped the artists, I did the production of them in motion capture and then worked with my team to build and bring all that into the virtual space and Roblox.
”If you had told me three years ago I’d be virtually producing a concert I would have been like, ’are you serious?’ But I had the skills to do it. I knew how to produce. I knew how to produce volumetric videos. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of long hours, long evenings. But when we got to see the final product, the final concert series, Electric Fest, inside Walmart Land... To me, it was worth it. It was just wonderful. The proudest moment for me was seeing my kids enjoy it and loving that their mother had done it.”
Hackl says she got to work with Madison Beer and Yungblud, doing motion capture, and says the fan reaction afterward will stay with her forever. ”It was just wonderful to see the actual people who this was for actually enjoying it.”
She has also found herself welcomed into the fashion industry with open arms – something she says isn’t normal for someone from the tech world. ”But I found a really good solid group of people there, I love talking to the brands and I now have my own luxury tech label, VerseLuxe, and we do amazing stuff.”
Finally, in a hat trick of memorable moments, Hackl tells how she was the first person in the world to ring the Nasdaq opening bell both physically and virtually. “It was the first time the bell was rung in the metaverse. And it was a woman and a Latina who did it. I’m very proud of that moment.”
Cathy Hackl is the chair of judges for The Drum Awards for the Metaverse, which will take place in late 2023.