I first witnessed the “metaverse” a few years ago in my very real family room. To celebrate his birthday, my son invited several friends over to spend the night and an incessant number of hours playing Fortnite.

The game of last-avatar-standing was “free” for the gang to play. But if someone wanted something special, like a flame thrower, a special suit of armor or some other way-cool “skin,” that was an extra purchase — with real money I wasn’t about to pony up.

There is a reason why the Cary-based maker of Fortnite, Epic Games — and now seemingly every other company — are migrating into “building out” the metaverse. The land rush is on, and there is gold in them thar hills.

You don’t have to be a computer programmer or even understand the “metaverse” to know that if you can get people to spend real time in digital landscapes and real money on digital merchandise, you too can become a bajillionaire like Epic Games owner Tim Sweeney.

Remember when e-commerce was a quaint notion, and people played games like SimCity knowing it was only a game? The metaverse is so much more than that.

While some folks have different impressions of the metaverse and virtual reality, I think of it as a parallel universe: Anything you can do in real life, you can do in a virtual world. Go to meetings? Shop online stores? Attend virtual concerts where your avatar watches other avatars? Meet others for intimate encounters? It’s all coming soon to a virtual reality near you.

Are we running out of things to do in real life, or merely the willingness to do them? You cannot swing a dead cat — proverbially or virtually, because, ew gross! — without hitting a story these days about the virtual world and the coming “metaverse.” While Facebook got a lot of mileage out of changing its corporate name earlier this fall to Meta, others have been working this space for some time now.

The idea is pretty basic. Strap on your virtual reality gear — headset and possibly gloves or other wearables — and get going.

Need to attend a meeting? Zoom and the “Brady Bunch” windows are so 2020. Sit down in a well-appointed meeting room with your associates and admire the beautiful mountain view in the background. And don’t worry about crossing or uncrossing your legs. No one walks anymore because no one has legs; it’s all about the float. Think Wii Bowling or Wii Golf.

If you’re feeling a little insecure floating down the virtual street in your virtual threads, drop in on your favorite high-end designer — or just fall into a virtual mall Gap — to outfit your avatar. That credit card at checkout is very real, though.

What to do on the weekend? ABBA is touring again, but the super troupers, now in their 70s, aren’t leaving Sweden.They’ve totally digitized themselves using the latest technology, morphing back into their 1979 selves. Your mother doesn’t even have to know that you’re out.

Shows will be available in real and virtual arenas. Want courtside seats for your favorite basketball games? Expect franchises to offer virtual tickets to real games, opening themselves to millions of new fans and new dollars.

It’s the new gold rush, but with the very real concern that people’s tenuous grasp on socialization may be slipping away as they steer further away from human contact and intervention.

The age of COVID has turned social distancing and contactless interaction and commerce into default modes of operation for many. As the “metaverse” grows and it becomes more feasible and common to do things in it, I worry that “failure to launch” will become “failure to thrive.” Social behaviors are learned behaviors, and, like any unused muscle, can atrophy without use over time.

How, in life, are we expected to be somebody if, ultimately, we become no body? More than ever, I am touchy about this, lest touch become the last possible thing we sacrifice.

Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or john@thepilot.com.

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