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Health Exchange: Founding member of hip hop’s N.W.A. goes from `Straight Outta Compton’ all the way into a health-care metaverse

Like a line of rappers before him, Arabian Prince, a founding member of the groundbreaking group N.W.A., is wading into the virtual-reality world — only this time, with a twist.

Unlike counterparts like Snoop Dogg and Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man who are using the metaverse as a gateway to exclusive entertainment and gaming experiences, Arabian Prince, born Kim Renard Nazel, wants to use the digital world for more than a form of escapism: He’s looking to create a “photo-realistic, digital twin” of the U.S. health-care system — one where patients can interact with doctors, get prescriptions, and obtain feedback on care more easily, quickly, and cheaply than in real life.

“We didn’t want to do something that looks like the other metaverses, that looks very cartoony,” Prince told MarketWatch via phone on Monday. “And we knew with health care, you have to be serious about it. You can’t have somebody that looks like Luigi from Mario Brothers talking to you as a doctor.”

A self-described nerd for technology, Prince, who grew up in Compton, California, taught himself how to code and use computers from the ages of 14-16, in order to program and produce electronic hip-hop and dance music. He then turned visual effects into a second career while still in N.W.A. Now 56 and living in Marina del Rey, he says he’s using Nvidia Corp.’s
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3-D platform Omniverse and Epic Games Inc.’s Unreal Engine to build the first medical metaverse, known as MdDao, to be unveiled in its infant stage on Wednesday.

Read: Nvidia seeks to lead gold rush into the metaverse with new AI tools

In an email, Richard Kerris, vice president of Nvidia’s Omniverse Platform Development, said: “We have been speaking with Arabian Prince about his project and their plans to use Omniverse for building their virtual world. It’s not a partnership as of now, it’s first about working together. We’re excited about his project.” Meanwhile, Epic Games spokeswoman Elka Looks said the company has “no knowledge of this initiative.”

Prince estimates it could take up to eighth months to a year for the platform to be fully ready. He envisions a future in which the only times anyone would need to go to a hospital is for surgery or a hands-on exam. By creating what he calls “digital twins” of health-care organizations and portals connecting patients to doctors, consultations could be shifted into the digital world. Patients would get their questions answered by real-life doctors privately or, if one isn’t available, talk to a digital avatar that would take down information and relay it. Meanwhile, patients could also get input on care from a broader, public group of members.

Investors of all stripes, not just celebrities, are rushing for a piece of the metaverse — also known as Web 3.0, or the next generation of the Internet, where non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are used to create an alternative reality — which may be worth $8 trillion to $13 trillion by 2030, according to an estimate by Citigroup Inc.
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Researchers at JPMorgan Chase & Co. JPM say the metaverse could also foreshadow “a paradigm shift in human behavior.”

More than a few celebrity-endorsed NFT endeavors have already flamed out, though, appearing as just quick-profit schemes that take advantage of their supporters’ pocketbooks. Prince is well-aware of the skepticism and says what makes his project different is that it’s based on something that already exists: the U.S. health-care system.

“I’m doing this to give connected services,” he said. “There’s a lot of places — people in rural communities, people in the inner cities — that don’t have health care, that don’t have connectivity. But one thing pretty much everybody has is a phone. If we can make it so that you can interact and get health care directly from your smartphone — that’s kinda where we’re going with this.”

“Prince has “a great vision since most people in the U.S. would like to see health care reimagined. Although I would skeptically say it’s a 10- to 15-year vision, I wouldn’t discount it at this stage.””

— Nick Casares of PolyientX

Indeed, South Korea’s Fount Investment Co., which operates the Fount Metaverse ETF MTVR, says the metaverse could be health care’s “new frontier” since elements of the Internet’s next generation, such as augmented and virtual reality, are already used by medical schools.

Prince’s dip into the metaverse underscores the widespread dissatisfaction that exists with the current health-care system, which was described as “broken” by a division of Harvard Medical School last year. In a undefinedconducted in March, 49% of those survey said they worry “a great deal” about the availability and affordability of services.

Much of the actual funding for MdDao is expected to come from paid members, according to Prince. The price for a one-time ownership fee is $1,500 to $3,000 for professionals; $750-$1,500 for the health and wellness community; and $300-$750 or lower for patients and others, he says. The fee enables someone to receive voting rights and decide what will be in the metaverse. A token system would also be used to reward users for healthy behavior. A total of 25 to 30 people make up the project’s tech team, according to Prince.

The notion of using blockchain-driven technology to improve health care comes up once or twice a year, but the digital industry hasn’t executed on it in any “meaningful” way, said Nick Casares, the Austin-based head of product at PolyientX, which builds tools used by developers of NFTs.

Three challenges stand in the way, Casares says. One is the user experience, which is “improving, but still an obstacle.” The second is government regulations on the digital space, which need to be fully developed before the metaverse can be widely accessible.  And the third is privacy rights: “When it comes to health-care records, that’s something that needs to be addressed before these ideas can truly sail,” he says.

Still, Prince has “a great vision,” Casares said via phone. “Although I would skeptically say it’s a 10- to 15-year vision, I wouldn’t discount it at this stage. A lot of incredibly smart people are working in this field.”

One of those smart people is Prince himself, who appears in the 9 o’clock position on the cover of N.W.A.’s 1988 “Straight Outta Compton” album. The album, which sold more than three million copies, spawned the careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, put West Coast gangsta rap on the map, and led to a 2015 movie by the same name.

Long regarded as N.W.A.’s forgotten member, Prince left the group right after the album’s release and says, with a laugh, that he was relegated to a nonspeaking character in the film who got stuck “looking at the wallpaper.”

“Back in the day when I was doing music, I was this really, really bright kid with a high I.Q. that was hiding it. It wasn’t really cool or hip to be smart in Compton, when you were young. You got beat up a lot,” he says. Now that he’s a self-described “futurist,” he says, “everybody comes to me now when they want to get into tech, including doctor friends of mine, who inquired about the metaverse.”

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