The wacky crazy cyborg future of AI, AR, VR, and brain-machine interfaces with Cathy Hackl

brain-machine interfaces

What will it mean to be human when we can plug into our computers, when we have good brain-machine interfaces. Today we plug our computers in to power … tomorrow, we might plug ourselves into them.

In this episode of future39 with John Koetsier we explore how artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality are changing how we see the world with Cathy Hackl. Human augmentation via technology — even brain-machine interfaces — will change how we live, how we work, and how we play.

Cathy Hackl is a LinkedIn Top Tech Voice. She’s a former Magic Leap evangelist and HTC Vive evangelist. She’s consulted with Porsche, is a serial author … and much more.

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John Koetsier: What will it mean to be human when we can plug into our computers?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. Today we plug our computers into power. Tomorrow, maybe, we plug ourselves into them. AR and VR are changing how we see the world. AI and augmentation, even brain machine interface, will change how we live, how we work, and how we play. To talk with us today, I want to bring in Cathy Hackl. She’s a LinkedIn top tech voice, former Magic Leap evangelist, she is HTC VIVE evangelist as well – actually it’s VIVE –  has consulted with Porsche, she’s a serial author and much, much more… welcome, Cathy!

Cathy Hackl: Thanks for having me John.

John Koetsier: Such a pleasure to have you. We’ve known each other for a long time. I’m not sure we’ve ever done something like this before, so I’m super glad to have you. And I know that you were thinking this was an audio podcast until about three minutes ago and so you had to rush. I really appreciate it!

cathy hacklCathy Hackl: Yeah, but I got it done, I put the makeup on. We’re good with video.

John Koetsier: That’s awesome. I always have that thing with VIVE, I want to say “VEEV,” I know it’s VIVE, but I want to… that must’ve been one of your challenges there.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah. I mean, when I first came across the brand, I was like, HTC what? I knew HTC from the phones back in the day, right?

John Koetsier: Yup.

Cathy Hackl: Then yeah, once you’re in there you’re like it’s VIVE and it’s VIVE capital letters.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Cathy Hackl: When you write it down it’s got to be capital letters, so…

John Koetsier: VIVE like live, okay, now I’ll remember it. Awesome. I gave a bit of an intro to you… you’ve been in and around AR, VR and AI frankly, for a long time. Maybe talk a little bit about that and talk a little bit as well about the current state of where VR and AR are right now.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah. So I’ve been part of the industry, it’s been about five years now. It feels like dog years, to be honest, but I always tell people, and for folks that have never heard my story before, I always say that I got to VR from storytelling. So I was a journalist, I know you you’re a journalist yourself, so I was working back in 2004 for CNN, and part of my job was to look at all the raw footage that was coming in from the war in Iraq. And when you have that type of job and you’re seeing things that are just not very nice, you kind of turn your humanity switch off just a little bit, right, to get by. I say I was a Facebook moderator before there were Facebook moderators. And it wasn’t until I had my first VR experience, which was in an HTC VIVE, that I didn’t feel like I was fully able to turn it back on. I went to a conference back when we used to go to conferences in person, it’s funny to say that now, and I put on a headset, went into an experience called “Confinement” by The Guardian, it’s a 6 x 9 solitary confinement cell and that was claustrophobic. Took the headset off and I said, this is a super powerful storytelling tool and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. So, that’s how I got started five years ago.

John Koetsier: Exactly. And so you were with VIVE for a while and then Magic Leap. Magic Leap of course, has had a bit of a rocky road and they just got another round of funding, I think $350 million or so. So hopefully they can pull something, some rabbit out of a hat here and do something interesting. But talk to us a little bit about where augmented reality and virtual reality are right now. Where’s the industry?

Cathy Hackl: I mean, the industry is really, I think benefiting from the enterprise, from enterprise applications. I mean, if you are working in VR and AR and you’re working in consumer, you know, it’s not necessarily the best market. Enterprise really is where it’s at, it’s been there for several years. When I worked with VIVE, I was actually there when they launched the HTC VIVE Pro, which was their enterprise headset and you know, that was an enterprise product. But then with Magic Leap also doing enterprise. So definitely that’s where the market is when it comes to creating solutions., I do think that as we move forward we’re probably going to have an inflection point somewhere in 2022-2023. I’m not going to say that it’s the year of VR or the year of AR.

John Koetsier: That has been said quite a bit.

Cathy Hackl: Everyone says that every year, right? What I’m saying, it’s going to be a bigger inflection point, depending, you know, a lot of things have to align. But I do think that by then, we’re probably going to see more adoption from a mass market kind of standpoint.

John Koetsier: And yet, what we’ve seen right now from Facebook with the Quest and with COVID-19 has been pretty interesting. I had the original, sheesh, what was the PlayStation… PSVR.

Cathy Hackl: PSVR, yeah.

John Koetsier: I still have that,that’s in a box somewhere. I spent a thousand dollars on that and used it about 10 times. But when the Quest came out, that to me was a game changer because it was inexpensive – fairly, $400 to $500 somewhere around there – it was wire free.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah.

John Koetsier: It wasn’t the top quality of anything in the world, absolutely, I totally get that, but it gave you the feeling of being in a different world. And it’s interesting, I had my son who’s a third year engineering student and he [was] in the tutorial for forever just, ‘Oh, I can do that. Oh, I can do…’ you know, it was different for me.

Cathy Hackl: You know, I got to try the Quest before it came out at one of the Oculus Connect developers conferences, and I was very impressed that this is the first real consumer product that I could see someone that is not in VR saying I want to purchase one or want to purchase one for my kids.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Cathy Hackl:  So definitely you’ve seen it, I mean they’re making money. I mean, Facebook and Oculus are making money off of the games that they’re selling. They’re bringing a lot of things, hand tracking, a lot of things that are coming, so I think what they’re doing is really interesting. I think it’s very powerful. I mean, I have so many…

John Koetsier: I sense a big ‘but’ coming.

Cathy Hackl: No, actually, no, I’m, I’m a big fan. The only virtual reality headset that I own is a Quest. I sold my other headsets.

John Koetsier: Wow, you heard it here first. Cathy Hackl AR VR evangelists. The only headset she owns is an Oculus Quest.

Cathy Hackl: VR. I mean, I have my Magic Leap of course.

John Koetsier: Ah ok, yeah, sorry.

Cathy Hackl: You know, I had and we probably saw this in December when it was sold out, Oculus Quest was sold out last Christmas, and I had friends reaching out, like people that are not VR industry people reaching out saying, ‘Hey, can you call someone at Oculus and help me get my Quest so that my kid can have it under the tree?’ You know? Of course. I’m like, no, guys, you got to wait until it’s available. But you know, I definitely see that inflection point as well right now, but I do think 2023 possibly, we’re going to see a bigger engagement. And you know, I think that’s a great question, John, because I think people right now are like, is this the pandemic the moment? Is this the breaking point? And I’m like, it’s an accelerant, but it’s not the end all be all. I mean, if you look at location-based entertainment, somewhere like the Void or somewhere there’s a VR arcade, right now when I get out of pandemic is the first thing I’m going to want to do is go there and put a headset on? Probably not. Right?

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. It’s interesting to consider this and as we think about what’s next and AR coming up and other things like that, to consider where Apple is, right. And there’s been a lot of speculation about that and it seems pretty clear right now that Apple is not too interested in VR, is not too interested in this socially isolating form of – I won’t say entertainment, because it can be a lot of different things including work and other things like that, and we’ll get into those things – but Apple’s interested in augmented reality and mixed reality in something that doesn’t put a wall between me and you when we’re in the same room together. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Cathy Hackl: There’s so many rumors out there, and I feel like every week a new analyst does a new rumor on the price and when it’s gonna launch.

So, you know, I take things with a grain of salt. So, you know, obviously they’re focusing on AR, they will have an AR product. I think that’s no secret, obviously. When is it going to come out? I’m not sure. That’s why my inflection point is either 22-23, who knows. But it’s interesting to watch the purchase they did of NextVR which is in essence a VR company, but if you look at the long game it’s because there’s a lot of things that VR does that can inform what AR does. And eventually, because I do think that further down the line in let’s say 10 years, I don’t know, maybe 10 years, the headsets or the glasses that we wear are going to do both.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Cathy Hackl: Right now they’re separate, they’re two different things, but eventually they’re going to do both. So yeah, it makes sense for a company like Apple to invest in a company like NextVR.

John Koetsier: I 100% agree. I think there’s a total convergence of AR and VR, and it’s just about the number of pixels, right? Is it 10% of the pixels in my visual field that I’m affecting? Okay, it’s AR. Maybe mixed reality if it interacts and engages, right? But at some point it’ll be the same hardware and it will be 100% or 10% whatever the case might be. And then you’ve got the best of both worlds. You can watch the movie on the airplane if you ever get back on an airplane, right in your own space, or you can just, ‘Oh yeah, that person is so, and so’ when you see them at a conference that maybe you’re at in three years from now, or whenever we start attending conferences again.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah. You know, I’m a big sci-fi fan. There’s a series from Hulu called The First and that’s one of the places where I’ve seen the best depiction of what the product could look like. And they were wearing basically glasses that did a lot of AR, they did volumetric calling or holographic calling, but they also at some points could do VR. So that’s like the one series where I’ve seen something like, huh, that’s a good prototype, let’s say, for the future.

John Koetsier: Interesting, interesting. I’m a huge sci-fi fan myself, I’ve written a science fiction book.

Cathy Hackl: Cool, I didn’t know that about you.

John Koetsier: I just finished the Dune series again, the original Dune series by Frank Herbert, which I love rereading every couple years or so. But yeah, I mean, I’m also watching Upload on Amazon Prime, I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

Cathy Hackl: Yes.

John Koetsier: But it’s, you know, people get uploaded into the cloud basically and anyways, neither here nor there, let’s get back on track here.

Cathy Hackl: Oh I do want to say something about Upload, sorry John. I actually got to preview it before because I did a partnership with Amazon and with Seeker and they interviewed me as a futurist. Could this happen, like would this eventually happen? And we had a great conversation.

John Koetsier: So you were kind of consulting on the outset for this particular series.

Cathy Hackl: When they were launching, not so much prior. I mean, I would have loved if they would have hired me as a consultant beforehand. I don’t think they knew about me til when they were about to launch. So they interviewed me… they had an episode called “Ask a Futurist” all about Upload so we talked about can this happen, etc. like brain-machine interface, pixels, like all kinds of stuff, so…

John Koetsier: Interesting interesting. Well cool. Hey, serendipity. I didn’t know that, I brought it up because I’m doing it right now. So awesome. Well, we’re going to talk about what’s coming next, right? And we’re talking a little bit about the future of AR and VR, but also brain-machine interface. We know that Elon Musk has a company Neuralink that’s working on something here. There are other companies as well. What do you see happening here?

Cathy Hackl: So I’ve tried these technologies, not Neuralink because that’s an implant, that’s a lot more invasive, right. I’ve tried more the external kind of devices. So, and actually I have one right behind me, maybe I can show…

John Koetsier: Yep, go ahead.

Cathy Hackl: Let me turn around, one second.

John Koetsier: It’s all good.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah, I’ve got one right here. I’ve tried these different companies: Norval, Neurosity, NextMind, and I’ve been able to change channels using just my mind, dim lights using my mind, do an escape room kind of inputting numbers and codes using just my thoughts, and it was really impactful and really interesting to me for several reasons. What I will tell you, the biggest thing I walk away from with this, is that my brain really, really loves a workout, really enjoys it. When I think about using these technologies, it’s like this endorphin, like I get this like thing where I’m like, man, I really want to do this.

So you know, I’m like, is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure, I’m still sitting with that one, but my brain really enjoys this type of interaction. And then when you start to think about how the operating systems of the future, how are we going to engage with technology? You know and if you take it a step further and start to think about what’s happening with the pandemic and kind of the touchless society that we’re kind of starting to become, or that we could potentially become. Then you add another layer when you start to think about brain-machine interface and controlling your devices, controlling when you’re connected to with just your mind.

John Koetsier: Can I ask a question? I know you’re going to show that and I’d love to see it. That’s awesome, but you are literally one in maybe a hundred million – I don’t know, I’m guessing right here – who has actually tested and tried these things. I’ve done one myself as well, you know where you’re trying to, in the science museum, you’re trying to push the ball farther and there’s a person on this side they’re trying to push the ball farther and try to concentrate your mental efforts.

I have a Muse, so I know a little bit about some things that are going on there, but I have never turned on a light with my mind. I have never switched off or switch on a machine. What’s that feel like? What do you do in order to make that happen?

Cathy Hackl: You concentrate, you have to concentrate. You have to focus on, depending on what the exercise is, sometimes it would be focusing on a certain part of the screen and you have to really focus, and then it would read your, I guess it reads your brain waves and reads your intention, right, and it makes what you’re thinking happen. So it’s a lot of focus. It’s training, like you have to train. Depending on the headset, like I’ve used, some of them need a little longer to calibrate. Some of them calibrate faster. Some do require training, like this one, like the Neurosity, this is, I mean if you look at it, it’s kind of stylish. Let me see if I can get it closer… and you can see the little sensors there, and this goes kind of on someone’s head like this.

John Koetsier: Wow, you should be in Star Trek.

Cathy Hackl: I know, so fashionable, now it’s gonna mess up my hair. But you know, with this one, you have to practice. Like you can scroll your iPad with the Neurosity but you have to practice.

John Koetsier: Let me ask about that. Like, how hard do you have to focus and concentrate here? Is it like you’re five years old and I’m going to lift that thing with the power of my mind and you’re training and you’re going like, is it that hard? Is it just like, turn the light switch on?

Cathy Hackl: You know, some of the ones I’ve tried, I’ve just been like, I’m just changing the channel and it happens. I mean, it does require some effort from your mind, but I wouldn’t say it’s like really concentrating and sweating or something like that, right. I’m trying to bend, I’m trying to bend a spoon and I’m sweating or something.

John Koetsier: Uri Geller the Second.

Cathy Hackl: So, I mean, it does require concentration and a state of mind I would say, to accomplish some of these things. So I don’t know, I mean, I consider myself a guinea pig of sorts because I enjoy trying these things.

John Koetsier: We thank you for your service.

Cathy Hackl: Thank you, right? I wonder sometimes like how much am I really, you know, is this a good thing or a bad thing? But it’s interesting. The biggest thing is to me, I walk away realizing that my brain really enjoys it. Like there’s receptors that light up when I think about it.

John Koetsier: Well it’s just interesting to hear what you’re saying in terms of what it’s like, because you have to focus, concentrate some systems it works better than others. I know that all of us have some degrees of a smart home, right? And so I can turn on some lights with my voice, or I can turn some lights with an app, but typically I think, you know, am I going to pull out my phone, am I going to open it, unlock it, am I going to find an app, right? Open an app, wait for it to open, connect, all that stuff and then click ‘Light On’?

Well, probably not unless I’m like closing the garage when we’re in bed and making sure that it’s closed, right. So that’s a lot of effort. Using your voice in Echo, or Siri, or Hey Google, is less effort, and I’m wondering where using your brain is on that scale now. And it sounds like it’s not too bad in some cases, although a little iffy, but where it will be maybe in five years, maybe it’ll be as simple as thinking ‘light on’ or something like that and there it goes.

Cathy Hackl: Possibly, because even if you look at the current companies and what they’ve been developing over the last, I would say, two years, they’ve evolved. The first time I did this, I had to wear a cap and they have to put all this like goo on my head for it to be able to read my brainwaves. Now I can just put kind of a little device…

John Koetsier: I suspect that would work a little bit better on me than you.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah, that’s definitely true.

John Koetsier: Give me the goo.

Cathy Hackl: You would work a lot, a lot, yeah. Actually it was really hard because I have really long hair and yeah, they were like, we can’t get it.

John Koetsier: Well, and there definitely are biohackers who, Nick Badminton who commented earlier and he’s a futurist, he has biohacked and inserted a few things and other stuff like that. Others are, you know in Sweden I think it’s fairly common for people to insert an RFID chip in their hands so they can get into their apartment or something like that, or their workplace. It seems like a little extreme for me right now, but I assume that’s going to get more and more popular over time, and especially if I can think things into being or connect the machine that’s where it gets pretty interesting.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah, you know, and commenting on Nick, Nick actually has a chip as well. So he’s biohacked and he has a chip and he had the whole documentary series about biohacking…

John Koetsier: Is Bill Gates involved in this? Come on, let us know, was he vaccinated?

Cathy Hackl: Oh goodness. So, I think we’re going to see it evolve. When I was watching Upload, they repeate a famous phrase is: “I think therefore I am.” Right? So  I think, you know, our thoughts are very powerful. And I brought this up with Nick the other day in a conversation we were having of potential dangers, right? Right now I’m very happy and excited about it, but what if in a dystopian, let’s say in a negative future of the potential alternative futures, if people get farmed for their thoughts and their intent, you know, so I think that it’s conversations like these that we need to start having about what are these technologies? What are the positives? What are the negatives? Right?

John Koetsier: Yes, yes, yes. Right now we have adware or malware or something like that that uses some of the cycles of our CPU to mine cryptocurrency or whoever what else. We attach our brains all of a sudden we could be a node in a network, you know it’d be very interesting.

The other thing that’s interesting, you mentioned Upload again, is that in Upload the avatars there or the artificial humans, the uploaded ones seem to have zero privacy. People can view anything that they’re doing at any given time from the company that provides it. That’s an interesting caution and odd thing that they decided to do actually. You would assume they would’ve thought of it differently.

Cathy Hackl: Well and I get that question asked, you know, when our world becomes the billboard, right? How do you manage that? And you’ve written about this you know, I think it was like augmented reality is the operating system of the future or something along those lines.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Cathy Hackl: I remember the headline, but you know when our reality becomes the billboard, when our reality becomes a space where things get advertised to us, how do we protect people from this type of a vision, right?

John Koetsier: Yes.

Cathy Hackl: And from the haves and have nots. If I can afford to not have ads and turn it off when I want to and certain people just can’t, then that’s a bigger divide.

John Koetsier: Yes, it is. And how much smarter would you be? How much more productive would you be without those distractions and other things like that?

Cathy Hackl: How much smarter, if I can access certain technologies that augment me as a human and as a worker, and other people that don’t have access to them, and I’m beyond, like Neurolink or something like that, more invasive, right? Like that just becomes two different races of humans.

John Koetsier: You know, I asked Ray Kurzweil about this once in person and he was talking about us being able to augment our intelligence, just like we add servers on the cloud right now because guess what, our capacity needs to go up for a website or an app, and so we’re adding servers just automatically, and you can just add cores, add capacity for your brain. I said, ‘Well, what does it do for equality or equity when somebody who is a billionaire can add literally hundreds of thousands of extra CPUs to his or her brain?’

And he said, ‘No, that’ll never happen.’ He kind of dismissed that, but it seems to me that if we get to that level of technology, we will definitely bifurcate as a species because somebody will just be smarter.

Cathy Hackl: I mean it’s something I do worry about, and I think that’s why, especially when we talk about artificial intelligence and talking about brain-machine interface and everything, like there’s best practices and there’s ethics that we need to talk about. I remember, what was it like two years ago, I posted in one of my Facebook groups, because there was a human augmentation conference about ethics, and I posted about it and then everyone came after me like, how dare you talk about this? You know, I’m like, no, we have to talk about this. Like this is not science fiction, you know, we’ve been augmenting ourselves as humans for a long time. It’s just going to accelerate and it’s going to be a lot more linked to technology in the sense of the word right?

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. And as we get deeper and deeper into the AI era as well, the companies that can compete the best, have the best AI. The countries that can compete the best, have the best AI. You’re better at war as a nation because you have a smarter military AI. You’re a smarter human being because you can own or access a higher level of AI system to just help you make decisions, invest better, all those other things. Big, big questions that we are not even close to solving at our current level of capabilities.

Cathy Hackl: But that we need to start discussing, right?

John Koetsier: Yeah. Let’s talk about some of your new initiatives that you’re coming up with, emerging foresight, you’re working on another book as well. Tell us a little bit about those things.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah, so I’m working on my second book. It’s called The Augmented Workforce: How AR, AI, and 5G Are Going to Impact Every Dollar You Make. And you know, hopefully, if everything goes well it’ll be coming out Fall of 2020. And our main goal with it is, it’s a business book. It’s for anyone in business, communications, technology, whichever industry they’re in that’s interested in better understanding how these technologies are going to impact the worker, the idea of work, automation of course we talk about automation, but also the concept of work as we understand it. So, very excited, co-writing it with John Buzzell from Unreal, he works at Unreal Engine.

So very pumped about that. Interviewing a lot of experts right now to include them in the book and yeah, I’m hoping there’ll be, it’ll be a good book. It’s funny because when we decided on the title for the book, we were thinking, our initial idea was like if I’m at the airport bookstore, right now we’re not … but if I’m at the airport bookstore and I see a title, what book would I purchased and grab off the rack?

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Cathy Hackl: So I thought that was like, oh, interesting!

John Koetsier: I can’t imagine creating the title of something before I’m finished. I know I do it all the time with writing on Forbes and other things like that, but often I’ll change it as well. So I assume that you might change it yet.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah. It potentially could change … I mean, nowadays I never say never. I think I’ve learned a lesson through the pandemic. So you know, we’ll see. I’ve actually, now that you mentioned Forbes, I got invited to write as a contributor for the CMO networks.

John Koetsier: Nice!

Cathy Hackl: So focusing on marketing and some of the things there, so exciting.

John Koetsier: Wonderful, wonderful.

Cathy Hackl: Yeah, I haven’t written my first piece, I’m working on it, but…

John Koetsier: Okay, awesome. Let me know when it comes out. Cathy, I want to thank you so much for taking this time with us. It’s been a real pleasure. It’s been a ton of fun and you’ve been a wonderful guest. Thank you so much!

Cathy Hackl: Thank you.

John Koetsier: Awesome. For everybody else, thank you for joining us so much.  Whatever platform you’re watching on, please like, subscribe, share, comment. If you’re listening to the podcast later on, rate it, review it. That’d be great.

Thank you so much. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.