Dr Loretta Chen really is the ‘force of nature’ she’s been described as; an author, professor and founder of the cutting edge technology and creative company Smobler Studios, she cannot be contained within one description.
The recent launch of Tools of Rock, and now Cobbleland, saw Loretta swept off to attend and present at South by Southwest (SXSW), from where she very kindly found time to talk to Popspoken about the metaverse, being a woman in the tech industry, and how to explain what NFTs, blockchain and bitcoin are.
The metaverse & multimedia
“I have always been a creator and an entrepreneur. In fact, the Straits Times and media have called me a ‘force of nature’, ‘rebel with a cause’, ‘critical arts entrepreneur’, ‘innovator’ to ‘Asia’s Anna Wintour’ especially when I wore my chin length bob,” jokes Loretta.
“I have always leaned into creative spaces that challenged conventional wisdom or artfully questioned the status quo. From projects like The Vagina Monologues, 251, Victor Victoria and What the Butler Saw, it was clear my artistic vision was always to raise questions that sought to push the envelope on what I term IDEAS – inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and sustainability.
“Today, these questions define the zeitgeist of the times, but in hindsight, even back in the 90s when I started in the scene, I was fundamentally always asking how we can make our communities more inclusive.”
Loretta says that the metaverse appealed to her because of its connection to creating communities, and being able to bring people closer together: “The threat of a pandemic has now entered the cultural imaginary and we will see a shift in living habits and lifestyles – it is akin to how 9/11 has forever changed the way we fly and engage security protocols,” she says.
“In addition, as a creator, the idea of having ownership appealed to me instinctively. Animoca Brands’ Yat Siu shared that he believes that the essence of the metaverse begins with property rights and the ability to own and control our virtual assets and data thereby leading to greater economic freedom and digital democracy.
“Whether that can be achieved remains to be seen as we are so early in the game and I am no Pollyanna and don’t believe in a utopia – but isn’t that what all creators, changemakers and thought leaders want – aspirational ideals?” asks Loretta.
“Democracy in itself is an ideal but that does not stop us from pursuing it. The ability to potentially make this world better and provide more IDEAS (inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and sustainability) to all is what attracts me to be an early pioneer in the space.
“That, and I come from an entire family of creators – Edmund Chen, Xiang Yun, Chen Yi Xi, Chen Yi Xin and my other brother Eric are all tireless entrepreneurs and artists. We need to create to feel alive.”
Being a woman in the tech industry
Over the last few years there have been a number stories about women experiencing a range of negative experiences when working in the tech industry, everything from massive pay gaps, to assault and sexual harrasment. However, Loretta says she has never had a negative experience.
“This is the first time I can truly unequivocally say, this is the best space to be a woman, especially a queer woman of colour. The landscape is dominated by movers and shakers, changemakers and folks who are futurists, dreamers and doers so EVERYONE is very supportive,” says Loretta.
“I am at SXSW now as we speak and have been invited to so many women-in-tech luncheons. In fact, we even have an acronym – WOW3 or Women of Web 3. I was speaking to Sandy Carter who was ex VP Amazon Web Services and she now runs Unstoppable Domains and is working to get more women in tech with her Unstoppable Wow3 platform.
“As Co-Founder of Smobler Studios, I have already pledged my and my studio’s resources to encourage IDEAS, education and leadership focused on training the next generation of talent with shared goals to onboard women on non binary in tech and Web 3.
“I am also co-writing a book with Soh Wan Wei Head of Ecosystem at Multiverse AI, a photoreal metaverse with AI and we are featuring all the women leaders in Web 3 including Avery Akkineni – President of VaynerNFY, Tarja Stephens – Co-Founder of Metaverse Inclusive, Jessica Manins – Co Founder of Beyond who is working on the hugely successful FLUF NFT, Iris Nevins – Founder and NFT Producer of Umba Daima, artist Verite and of course Sandy Carter herself,” Loretta says.
As the founder of Smobler Studios, Loretta is putting her money where her mouth is, working towards trying to get more women into the multimedia and technology sectors.
“We are already working with a sold-out women-led NFT project, Sacred Skulls and building their world in The Sandbox for them,” says Loretta. “The founders are two close friends, Kayla Lane and Jade Tolbert who are mothers (one is a mom to be!) who share a passion for art, community and empowering women through financial independence.
“The intention is to create a world that is designed with women in mind to enable them to join the Web3 revolution. With women making up just 16% of the NFT marketplace and 2% of VC funding globally, we want women to have a seat at the table and we will bring the chairs for them!” explains Loretta.
According to Loretta, Smobler is creating a “sanctuary for the mind, body and soul”. Apart from this particular project, Loretta says that in general more needs to be done to get more women involved in the tech industry.
“We need a multi-pronged approach – we need leaders, changemakers like us to help create an ecosystem for women foundhers (pun intended) and non binary [individuals]; we need funding, support, mentorship, representation and the creation of more safe spaces for women and non binary to thrive.
“That’s one side of the equation. We also need women and non binary [individuals] to have the courage to lean in, support and uplift one another: Collaboration not competition, and we need to see more women and non-binary [individuals] speaking up because just as children can’t be what they can’t see, non-binary [people], women and traditionally underrepresented demographics need to see more role models so that is why I am a huge supporter and believer in any project or cause that builds communities.”
What exactly is an NFT, the metaverse, blockchain and bitcoin?
These terms are all over the place right now, in the news, discussed among friends, on social media, but at the same time many of us don’t really understand what they all are. Luckily Loretta can give us a simpler, more understandable definition of what these thing are.
“Blockchain is the foundational building block so let’s start there. It is the underlying technology that enables the recording of digital ownership as the blockchain is essentially a distributed digital ledger. This makes it difficult to hack or alter data and is what enables secure value exchange,” she explains.
“Bitcoin is a digital currency built on that technology and both are attributed to Satoshi Nakamoto whose real identity is unconfirmed until today. What is key to note is that Bitcoin is not controlled by a central bank.
“Blockchain has also enabled the creation of NFTs or non-fungible tokens as you can now prove ownership of an artwork, collectible, video or any media that can be digitized which has in turn enabled and facilitated an entire economy.
“The Metaverse is an evolution of Web 2.0 which is where we are now. It is more immersive and allows digital experiences in virtual worlds,” says Loretta.
So now we know what these things are, how can this new technology and concepts be made easier for all of us to use? Loretta says that there are some challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome before the metaverse can become something we use as easily as we use our smartphones.
“As with all things, income and economic inequity is always an issue. Those with access to technology in the developed world will find themselves accelerating at a faster pace while [less developed] nations will find it harder to catch up. This could potentially wedge an even wider rift between developed and developing nations.
“The other major issue is perception. Many digital natives are excited at the prospect as they lead their lives on screen anyway but the decision makers tend to still be Baby Boomers or members of the Silent Generation who have negative perceptions of the metaverse.
“Even my college campus is split – one camp believes that we should embrace the inevitable technological transformation and become more digitally savvy but another camp maintains we need ‘old school education’ – literally.
“And finally, Mark Zuckerberg’s definition of the metaverse has dominated mass perceptions. Many equate the metaverse with the Oculus and assume the only way to access the metaverse is via a bulky headset that is neither lightweight, portable or affordable. That is far from the truth as the metaverses we are working on allow you an engaging, virtual immersive experience without any headset. The metaverse we are working on is more focused on the creator, digital economy and experience where creators/players/users can create, buy, sell goods and are focused on building interoperability.
“As an extension, one of the biggest challenges is if companies like Meta try to co-opt the metaverse for their own benefit. In this current Web 2.0 that is dominated by the likes of Facebook/Meta, we really are just ‘renters’ in the digital universe as we live on these platforms but essentially do not own the data. Yat Siu from Animoca even calls this ‘digital colonialism’ where Facebook/Meta functions as ‘imperialists’.”
“My hope is that we will see more players and communities coming into the metaverse to create open, interoperable tools so we can eventually be able to take our avatars as well as our virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another. Strapping on a heavy, bulky headset is not what we signed up to do,” jokes Loretta.
While the ‘idea’ of the metaverse is exciting to lots of people, there are also some experts who have pointed out that there are possible dangers and problems that need to be considered before we all jump into the metaverse willy-nilly.
“Indeed, some of the dangers of the online space that is not just unique to the metaverse is that we may see more armchair critics, keyboard warriors and a rising lack of restraint in what one may post or share. We have already seen that in the US elections as well as the Facebook saga. If regulation in Web 2.0 was difficult enough, Web 3.0 may prove to be an even bigger challenge.
“However, I do hope we can have some common consensus to ensure we do no harm to children. We have already seen the consequences of too much social media on self esteem and mental wellness. I also would like to see bigger players and communities take on stewardship of the metaverse to not allow it to descend into the abyss.
“Fundamentally, the metaverse is, after all, a human endeavor and as such it will see its fair share of detractors and nefarious miscreants. I do not see this as a reason to fear change or evolution as it is part of a process.
“What I do hope is that we can see more public, private partnerships where we can collaborate and create innovative ideas about governance with this trifecta. The clearer we all are in what we want from the metaverse, the better it will be for everyone,” she points out.
Being creative is about solving problems
Here at Popspoken we are all about celebrating creativity in all its shapes and versions. While many people might think that the tech industry is all hard numbers and coding, creativity is in fact an intrinsic part of technology.
“For starters, my definition of creativity is an ability to look at things using different lenses, vantage points and perspectives. It also refers to the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions, and phenomena and in so doing, the creative mind will forward new ideas, pose unfamiliar questions, suggests fresh ways of thinking and generates unexpected answers. Creatives are in essence problem solvers,” says Loretta.
“As such, I do think we do need creative minds in this industry as we are continually evolving, and do not settle for the status quo, to constantly push the boundaries of knowledge, technology and growth.
“Yet on another level, creativity is also about temperament, personality, stance and choice. The creative mind is Dionysian and by that, I mean the creative mind inherently is on the quest for change and enjoys idiosyncrasy, being out of one’s comfort zones and being different from the pack. Creators are not afraid of failure, are bold and are risk takers and I do believe, all of these can be honed over time – like strength and stamina training.
“Unlike popular belief, I think the most creative minds are the most disciplined as we are able to create in spite of constraints and it is not the proverbial ‘thinking out of the box’ but thinking and doing because there is a box! The challenges inspire us.
Loretta says that the majority of people involved in the Web3 space are “iconoclasts, changemakers, polymath and multi-hyphenates”, who are “disciplined and driven because this space is constantly evolving with no clear answers so most of us are intrinsically motivated and have the discipline to follow through with an idea – no matter how extreme or far fetched it seems.”
In short, creativity is intrinsic but I also maintain that it is like a muscle that gets better and stronger with consistent, disciplined engagement.”
For more information about Dr Loretta Chen, go to www.drlorettachen.com, check out Smobler Studios at www.smoblerstudios.com, or follow them on Twitter at @smoblerstudios. Check out Tools of Rock at opensea.io/collection/toolsofrock, and Cobbleland at www.cobble.land.
WHAT ARE TOOLS OF ROCK & COBBLELAND?
“We are the builders of Tools of Rock but the founder is JJ Lane , reality show star of The Bachelor and ex investment banker. JJ conceptualized having music in the metaverse back in June of 2021. JJ envisioned a venue that would not only host live music experiences, but also serve as a social hub to connect music lovers across the world,” says Loretta, explaining that Tools of Rock is like a virtual music venue.
“Smobler Studios was selected after JJ interviewed over 10+ studios. Our team was the only one that truly grasped JJ’s vision and the ‘epic’ nature of what needed to be built to capture the imagination, dynamism and vision required to reinvent an industry. Through every step of the build, we have far exceeded his expectations and have now become co-creators.
“Smobler Studios has our own IPs as we own our own virtual real estate or ‘land’. We created Cobbleland to support the creation, curation and cultivation of more IDEAS. We can support more women, LGBTQIA, BIPOC in tech, fresh start ups that may not be able to afford a brick and mortar store as well as enable the creation of accessible landscapes and bringing diverse communities together,” says Loretta.
Loretta explains that Cobbleland is inspired by the idea of a World’s Fair and a Theme Park, “in essence, a multi-experiential social hub, theme park and expo that allows Ruel and me to bring our real world experience together”.
Cobbleland will showcase products, services, companies and brands via a type of virtual modular design that will allow them to “escape paying high rentals”, says Loretta. “This allows us to work with metaverse enthusiasts, startups, creatives, a new demographic and population that was not able to access brick and mortar real estate before. Exorbitant start-up costs were an inhibitor to growth and creativity.”
“We are also working with The Food Bank to work on a charity NFT project in April to raise funds for the cause and alleviate food insecurity; supporting a new digital fashion startup brand REVEL, and to launch a pop up store in Cobbleland as a venue for life’s celebrations like weddings, birthday graduations or bachelor parties. My nephew, celebrity Chen Xi is also working on an art project he is taking into Cobbleland.
“We have also just signed a collaboration with Multiverse Labs to bring local entertainment, culture and lifestyle to the metaverse as well create initiatives to support more women in tech. We are also hoping to use my years of experience in theater to bring Broadway into the Multiverse.
“Finally, we are also launching our own 10K NFT project based on the theme of Hawaii (my other home!), surfing and unicorns so watch this space!”