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Peter Morici: The promise and perils of the metaverse are becoming more real everyday

Technology offers children wonderful diversions—through games like Roblox, they guide avatars, whose identities they may appropriate, through adventures. In proper proportion, these provide a useful place for social connection—for example, during pandemic shutdowns.

For adults working and shopping, technology is often less satisfying. Zooming and online marketplaces are incomplete substitutes for being able to send visual cues, exert physically, and touch and smell the merchandise.

The metaverse could change that by bringing together virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, and social media.

The key thing to know is that it’s more than games. Fortnite has opened a social space called Party Worlds, Meta Platforms
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has Horizon Worlds. Real-estate investors are purchasing land in places like Sandbox and Decentraland, and big purveyors of luxury brands like Hermès and Gucci see billions selling virtual versions of their clothing and accessories.

In 2020, Travis Scott gave a concert inside of Fortnite to 12 million.

More compelling, holograms like projections of deceased singers Maria Callas and Roy Orbison have performed on stage. Researchers and entrepreneurs are exploring how digital versions of people can be kept alive after death.

Think about your deceased grandmother at age 55 reading bedtime stories to your children.

Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that the metaverse will become an $800 billion industry by 2024.

The key thing to remember is these alternative realities are still fundamentally play, social and entertainment. We can’t live in the “fourth dimension,” because all of us still must come back to terra firma to eat, sleep and acquire the wherewithal to pay for access.

A good deal of the problem is hardware—those clunky goggles that would be impossible for virtual business meetings and client calls—and software—the lack of avatars that are true representations of ourselves.

Contemporary software is like autonomous drive. We keep getting closer to the wall but with smaller and smaller steps that enhance the safety of human drive. It’s still not something we would trust to take our children to school on an icy and dark January morning.

In the metaverse, comfortable glasses or contact lenses, haptic devices and perhaps direct neuro connections will replace clunky goggles and wands. Realistic digital replicas of ourselves will become the avatars, and we will grimace or smile to our neighbor, smell the cooking at Williams Sonoma, and walk down the aisle at a ballgame to steal a peak into the dugout.  

BMW
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and Nvidia 
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have created a digital twin of an assembly factory. Engineers from multiple locations can place their presence, through motion capture suits, into a digital twin to rearrange the factory floor and replicate the physical motions of workers to optimally configure machinery to produce a vehicle.

Along the lines of driver assist as opposed to autonomous drive, the building blocks of the metaverse will let us work virtually more comfortably. The BMW factory is enormously expensive and hardly generalizable for taking the tedium out of virtual meetings and team collaboration in business.

However, innovations like Alphabet’s
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Starlite may make eye contact and a sense of real presence in a meeting room or in a one-on-one with colleagues so real that the final barriers to making Wall Street an idea instead of a place may finally be at hand. And working virtually—from homes or at the beach and to avoid the L train from Queens to Manhattan—is something prospective recruits are demanding in a tight labor market.

The digital stream that allows distant workers to really be there—now a concept more than a conference room—will generate lots of data for supervisors about workers’ productivity and attentiveness. And that has enormous security and liability consequences for employers.

More fanciful is the potential to fully replicate our physical characteristics and personalities to participate at metaverse meetings while we accomplish another work task in another place or simply tour the Musée d’Orsay. 

One day, this may not be science fiction, but all the steps in between virtual work and such alternative presence designs should be pursued with caution.

The zillions in computing power and memory necessary to accomplish our digital duals won’t be free. However, just as we use social media and surf the web without charge, Facebook, Google and others may be happy to enable us if we let them ride along to record our lives. And in the bargain market, monetize and manipulate who and what we are.

If hackers can hijack Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s Twitter
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personality and plant shills to spread misinformation, why can’t they appropriate our personalities too?

Be careful what you ask for—you may get your wish.

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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