Darden Professor Anton Korinek, an expert on the economic implications of advanced technologies, believes that there will be ample opportunities for value creation in the emerging “metaverse” — a persistent collection of real-time virtual worlds created to enable novel experiences and new ways of engaging with one another.

“The metaverse,” said Korinek, “will transform the delivery of many goods and services by overcoming the scarcity and limitations imposed on us by the laws of physics.” In fall 2022, Darden will offer its first course on the subject, “Creating Value in the Metaverse.”

Virtual reality (VR) offers fresh opportunities and challenges, as Korinek discussed with Marc Santugini, the Blue Ridge Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the University of Virginia Department of Economics. The two explored the issue at a webinar hosted by the Human Machine Intelligence Group at UVA.

Aware that tech companies were racing to develop the metaverse — and personally missing interactions with his students — Santugini explored new ways of connecting as he shifted to online classes in early 2020. As the world adapted to life in a pandemic, virtual reality, which was getting increasingly lifelike and immersive, appealed as a safe and effective tool for teaching economics. After spending a year recording videos in VR to learn the trade, Santugini offered a class taught exclusively in VR in the spring of 2021.  

What follows is drawn from Korinek’s conversation with Santugini.

Getting Started

Korinek: How does one get started in the metaverse? For example, how labor intensive was it to create a course in VR?

Santugini: Getting started was not easy. Overall, it takes a lot of preparation and time, and it’s good to start slow.

At first, I was just creating videos for my classes. I had to learn how to record and use my desktop computer while being in the virtual world. I started exploring as many VR worlds as possible and was lucky to have the help of Jason Bennett at UVA’s Learning Design & Technology. I took a class to learn how to build a tree in VR, then learned how to transfer that knowledge to economics-related materials.

I needed a lot of tutorial videos to prepare the students, too, and was also lucky to get a grant to buy equipment for the students. My TA Noah and I started doing review sessions, Q&As, and providing resources like that.

After a year, we did our first virtual class — we sat around a VR fireplace and discussed a book. We used a cartoonlike VR platform called Rec Room, in which individuals can create and play games, and I could create things to add to the experience. Then we decided to have a bigger VR space with more activities.

Not for Everyone

Korinek: How did people react when you first introduced them to VR? Was there enthusiasm? Were there challenges?

Santugini: Some students really liked the videos I would drop for my class — videos in Half-Life and other popular games. Some people are really excited to take VR classes, build objects, connect wires and animate things.

But there were also some negative reactions. Some students who were wearing VR headsets had problems with dizziness. Some people experience what’s called VR fatigue, and they can't concentrate well in virtual worlds. 

In the beginning, it’s hard to learn about economics — or any other subject — when you’re in VR, because you also have to learn about how to operate in VR. It takes a long time, and as a result, you need a lot of experienced support staff.

And it can also be underwhelming. I’ve seen some PowerPoint presentations in VR that couldn’t beat the real world or Zoom. Sometimes the disadvantage could be that you force your way into VR to do something, and it actually provides a worse outcome.

A New Way of Looking at Things

Korinek: What do you see as the benefits of VR and exposing stakeholders to the metaverse?

Santugini: The benefit is that it’s a new way of looking at things. It forces you to get away from whiteboards and slides. It forces you to think more about the process instead of just giving people information. It forces you to ask: “How do we build something? How do we arrive at an object that we can use to teach an economic concept, a physics concept or anything else?”

And another benefit is that if you have physical disabilities and you can’t walk, you can still walk — and even fly — in VR. VR offers amazing possibilities.

The big idea is to prepare people for the 21st century. Facebook is making a big push into VR, and more and more companies are exploring VR — so I see learning in VR as preparing stakeholders for the work environment in 10, 15 years. It’s important to start experiencing the virtual world, and the sooner they can do that, the better.

Gosia Glinska is associate director of research at Darden.

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