What is the metaverse—and what does it mean for business?

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No official definition yet exists for the metaverse, but companies can’t afford to wait until one does or the metaverse fully evolves to start experimenting and investing in it.

No one quite agrees on how to precisely define the metaverse, but there is no denying that we are already seeing glimpses of it and what it might become. In this episode of the At the Edge podcast, Cathy Hackl—foremost futurist, metaverse expert, and author—joins McKinsey’s Mina Alaghband to share her informed take on what the metaverse is, how it’s currently manifesting, and what it might evolve into in the future. She also discusses the potential opportunities—and responsibilities—for businesses as the metaverse develops.

An edited transcript of the discussion follows. For more conversations on cutting-edge technology, follow the series on your preferred podcast platform.

“If you wait a year and a half or two years to do something, to have a clear strategy, and to start testing these assumptions, it might be a little bit too late.” – Cathy Hackl

Mina Alaghband: That’s Cathy Hackl, tech futurist and metaverse expert. She’s a sought-after advisor to luxury brands, a prolific writer, and she headlines many of the leading conferences on the metaverse. She joins me today.

This is the first of a three-part series on the metaverse. I’m Mina Alaghband. Welcome to At the Edge, a production of McKinsey’s Technology Council.

Cathy, thank you so much for joining us for our inaugural episode. Let me start by asking you, what is the metaverse?

Cathy Hackl: I think it’s important to state that there is really no agreed-upon definition right now. Every morning—it’s become a bit of a ritual—I go to the Merriam-Webster dictionary and type in the word metaverse. And every day it says this word is not in the dictionary.

But if we needed to define it, I tend to have a pretty expansive view of what the metaverse is. I believe it’s a convergence of our physical and digital lives. It’s our digital lifestyles, which we’ve been living on phones or computers, slowly catching up to our physical lives in some way, so that full convergence. It is enabled by many different technologies, like AR [augmented reality] and VR [virtual reality], which are the ones that most people tend to think about. But they’re not the only entry points. There’s also blockchain, which is a big component, there’s 5G, there’s edge computing, and many, many other technologies.

To me, the metaverse is also about our identity and digital ownership. It’s about a new extension of human creativity in some ways. But it’s not going to be like one day we’re going to wake up and exclaim, “The metaverse is here!” It’s going to be an evolution.

Mina Alaghband: Can you paint us a more specific picture? For example, what might a young woman’s life look like in the metaverse ten years from now?

Cathy Hackl: I envision that she wakes up and starts her morning routine thanks to her voice adviser. She goes to her closet and looks at her volumetric version of herself, which is like an avatar or hologram of herself, and starts trying on clothes virtually using that volumetric version of herself that has all her measurements, and then selects what she’s going to wear that day. And the actual clothing she then puts on her physical self has a digital component to it. She can alter what her outfit looks like depending on who she’s with virtually, or maybe her lipstick has digital haptic nanoparticles embedded in it so she can greet her partner who is traveling in another country and feel his embrace.

Much of what we’ve read about the metaverse from sci-fi has been pretty dystopic, but I do think we need to envision what it will look like so we can build toward a more positive view of the future. We don’t want to escape reality but rather embrace and augment it with virtual content and experiences that can make things more fulfilling and make us feel more connected to our loved ones, more productive at work, and happier people.

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