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Should State and Local Governments Care About the Metaverse?

Governments may be reluctant to invest in metaverse-based services without a clearer sense of how the space is forming and how residents want to use it. These early days could be time for learning what the technologies might offer and how interventions could encourage equitable development.

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Governments cannot know for sure how metaverses will develop or if they’ll live up to the hype, but now may be the time to start exploring the possibilities and making plans to guide the space’s development.

The city of Seoul, South Korea, appears to be embracing the technology, and officials last year announced plans to deliver a variety of metaverse-based public services and events by 2026. Gartner Technology Innovation Research Director Marty Resnick told GovTech that city stands out because the local government is working to build, not just acquire, metaverse infrastructure.

Cities in the U.S. haven’t gone so far — instead leaving the technological development to the private sector — but a number have been making use of underlying technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and blockchain as well as 3D modeling and digital twins.

Several U.S. state universities are also trialing metaverse versions of campus buildings and classes this fall. They aim to test how such tools can enhance classroom teaching, improve remote learning and prepare students for future jobs requiring metaverse skill sets, New Mexico State University and South Dakota State University faculty told GovTech.

Still, obstacles remain, and many state and local governments may be taking a wait-and-see approach before getting more involved.

Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher often explores new technology spaces to see what they could mean for government, including trying the virtual environments of Second Life and World of Warcraft. But he told GovTech that state officials would struggle to make the case to legislators that today’s metaverses offer enough return on investment (ROI) or generate enough resident demand to justify the costs of government adoption.

Resnick pointed to another hurdle: the fact that there isn’t yet one “the” metaverse. He expects governments will wait until the space consolidates more so they don’t end up investing in a metaverse only to see residents flock to a different one.

But that doesn’t mean state and local governments should step back entirely. These early days are a chance for governments and private-sector players to help guide how the metaverses develop, according to Susan Gonzales, CEO of the nonprofit AIandYou, which helps marginalized communities learn about new technologies and their implications.

Early interventions could hopefully avert some of the bias and equity issues that have emerged with technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) from infusing metaverses, said Gonzales, who is also a member of the National AI Advisory Committee.

PROMISES AND VISIONS


Visions swirl over just how the metaverse could help government agencies.

For example, Seoul hopes to host metaverse-based festivals, attracting virtual tourists worldwide, and let residents meet virtually with avatars of public officials instead of traveling to city hall to meet in person, according to euronews.

A recent report from the National League of Cities (NLC) also highlighted possibilities: NLC envisions a potential future in which U.S. residents could quickly access city services and public meetings through the metaverse, and in a more user-friendly manner than that offered by other digital channels. This could make services more accessible to those with mobility issues or tight schedules, assuming they also have the Internet bandwidth and tools needed to access metaverses.

NLC spotlights Santa Monica, Calif., as an early explorer of this space, for an initiative aimed at encouraging visiting and patronizing local stores. Santa Monica partnered to launch an AR app where users viewed an interactive map of the local retail district and gathered virtual tokens when visiting different areas, per dot.LA. Users could redeem the tokens for real-world items with participating retailers or use them to unlock app-based experiences.

Governments could also likely use metaverses to better inform residents and entice public participation. Utah is planning a new prison construction, and — if officials and residents had this technology in place — the state could hypothetically spin up a 3D digital twin mockup and invite residents to virtually visit and give feedback on specific design elements, CTO Fletcher said.

“Those kinds of things could be really interesting and really immersive, and probably draw more participation,” Fletcher said.

At its core, the metaverse is about creating a new environment in which people can socialize and interact and perform transactions, he explained.

That interactivity is key to state governments’ potential interest in the technologies, as they look to continually improve how they serve the public. But a high-quality metaverse project is costly, and states will first need to see that this is something the public really wants and can benefit from.

WILL GOVERNMENT GET INVOLVED?


Not all technologies like these have paid off. Fletcher recalls his and others’ early 2000s efforts to see if the virtual platform Second Life could be useful for government. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich held a rally on the platform, and Fletcher created an avatar to test meeting virtually with different politicians.

But despite hype at the time, Second Life didn’t pan out. In part, officials realized that residents went to Second Life for entertainment and escapism – not exactly what comes to mind when residents think of government, Fletcher said.

“It never really developed into anything significant for government beyond some of those early experiments,” Fletcher said. “I think we're looking at [the metaverse] and saying, ‘OK, is this going to be the same thing, where people are going to get excited about it, but it's not going to go anywhere?’ Or is this somehow different, because of the technologies, and maybe the climate’s changed?”

Ultimately, state governments will likely engage with metaverses “to some degree,” but just how seriously they do so depends on how these platforms and their use cases develop, Fletcher said.  

Resnick said the fragmented landscape is another obstacle.

[Governments are] waiting for mess to clear out,” he said. “There’s a lot of metaverses right now. Which are the ones that really are going to have an impact? Which are the ones that are not? Is there a metaverse out there right now that's really going to expand and make a dent in the things that I should worry about for my constituency, or is it just still such small numbers [of participants]?”

UNDERLYING TECHNOLOGIES


Right now, state and local governments may be more interested in the technologies that underpin the metaverse, Fletcher said. Those can include digital twins, blockchain, IoT and virtual and augmented reality.

For example, Boston used a digital twin to model a proposed building and the shadow it would cast, leading authorities to modify the design, NLC notes.

Blockchain, too, has garnered attention. In one instance, researchers in Austin, Texas, explored using it to securely store identifying records of people experiencing homelessness, enabling them to access medical and social services even if their paper ID documents become lost, stolen or damaged.

Governments are also exploring a variety of VR and AR uses.

Public agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service brought immersive VR headsets to career fairs to show potential recruits simulations of what work at a slaughter plant looks like. This helped weed out applicants who couldn’t abide the realities of the jobs, saving the department from spending on training up staff who would only quit, per Deloitte.

Charlotte, N.C., meanwhile, is using VR as a way to teach history by showing visitors virtual re-creations of razed Black neighborhoods. Chicago police, in turn, have sought to use VR to improve officers’ empathy and understanding of civilians with mental illnesses, by immersing officers in simulated experiences of psychiatric episodes.

“METAVERSITY”


While state governments like Utah may be still weighing the merits of metaverse adoptions, some state universities are wading in. Several universities will be testing out VR- and AR-infused lessons and digital twin classrooms, via a collaboration with ed-tech firm VictoryXR and equipment provided by Meta.

VR and AR technology could make remote learning more “hands-on” by enabling students to physically engage such as by picking up virtual chemistry beakers, something not possible in Zoom-based remote learning, said Greg Heiberger, South Dakota State University assistant professor and the associate dean for Academics and Student Success at its College of Natural Sciences.

The virtual simulations could help universities maximize limited supplies and real estate, Heiberger told GovTech. For example, students might supplement their training in real-world cadaver labs with virtual dissections that allow them to practice unrestricted by lab hours or availability of bodies.

New Mexico State University director of Academic Technology, Robbie Grant, told GovTech that some classes include dangerous experiments, like nondestructive testing in engineering courses. That can necessitate keeping class sizes small, but such experiences through VR would create a safer, controlled environment that allows more students to participate.

Both New Mexico and South Dakota are large and sparsely populated states, and the metaverse technology can make it easier for faculty to connect with prospective students. Recruiters can bring headsets to high schools to let them virtually tour campus, without having to travel there, for example, Grant said.

Looking ahead, Grant aims to see one of his university’s colleges offer a degree entirely through metaverse-based labs and online coursework. The pandemic forced faculty to offer online classes, but staff report students are less engaged. Grant hopes metaverse experiences can turn this around - something that his university will be studying.

Heiberger expects that VR familiarity could become part of a professional skill set.

“We don't know what the metaverse is going to look like 10 or 15 years later, but I believe that, in some way, some pieces of this are going to stick,” Heiberger said.

A number of major companies are showing interest in VR, which means that students could encounter similar virtual tools and workspaces in their professional lives and will need to be able to communicate effectively in these environments.

“We need to develop skills in future scientists and future health-care professionals — in future professionals broadly — in VR,” Heiberger said. “They'll still need to know how to communicate and engage with people professionally and positively in those spaces just like they need to do [face to face] in the anatomy lab today or the chemistry lab today.”

REGULATION AND INTERVENTION


This could be a prime time for governments to consider how they want to shape metaverses, even if they refrain from making investments.

The federal government in particular may want to tackle questions around whether or how to tax commercial activities in the metaverses, as well as how to maintain national security and protect users against privacy risks and cyber harassment, Resnick said. He acknowledged that uncertainty around how many metaverses there will be and who is in charge add complications to this.

“Do we have a decentralized model for the metaverse, where technically no one really owns it? … Or is it going to be a centralized approached, where a Meta owns it or a Microsoft owns it, or something like that? Those are two totally different conversations,” Resnick said.

AIandYou’s Gonzales believes the metaverse will open new economic opportunities, in part by creating rising demand for coders and graphic designers as well as by encouraging heavier use of NFTs and cryptocurrencies.

She says now is the time to ensure that marginalized communities are equally able to access and participate in the emerging digital economies, because early interventions can get ahead of equity issues while the metaverses are still forming.

In particular, Gonzales says steps need to be taken to ensure that the developers behind metaverses and their underlying technologies come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. That’s central to helping catch potential bias issues, equity gaps, accessibility challenges and other harmful impacts of the technologies and their uses. This can help ensure the resulting platforms are accessible and inclusive to as much of the population as possible.

Gonzales advocates for efforts to provide underrepresented populations with reskilling opportunities in AI, AR and VR development so they’re able to dive in to shaping the space. Also helpful: awareness campaigns to inform small businesses and schools about how they can use the metaverse.

“With the metaverse, we have the opportunity to construct an inclusive foundation, now … as opposed to waiting and learning that some of the new metaverse tools may not be inclusive and pull that back,” Gonzales told GovTech.

This is part 2 of a series on the metaverse. Learn more about the metaverse in part 1.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.