SEOUL, South Korea – At an October conference hosted by the city of Seoul, the mayor was dressed in a patterned green suit jacket and a dark tie, his hair neatly combed.
But Oh Se-hoon was not really there. Instead he attended as his avatar, and the conference was held in the “metaverse,” a communal, virtual space, seen by many as the next frontier of the Internet, where users interact using avatars.
Seoul’s city officials are among them, as the city seeks to become one of the first municipal governments with a full-service virtual world. In “Metaverse Seoul,” according to plans, residents would be able to make reservations for city-run facilities, ride city tour buses, visit re-creations of destroyed historical sites, file administrative complaints with city bureaucrats and more. Residents would also be able to visit cultural heritage sites throughout the city by accessing the metaverse on their cellphones.
Metaverse Seoul begins this New Year’s Eve, when the traditional Bosingak bell-ringing ceremony will also be held on the platform for any residents who want to participate virtually.
Seoul’s metaverse plan aims to be completed by 2026 and could roll out in phases starting next year. It would first be available on smartphones. Eventually, augmented reality tools, such as goggles and controllers, may be used, officials said.
From Silicon Valley to India’s tech hubs, a future metaverse is envisioned as an online realm where personal avatars interact and participate in the same activities as people do in the physical world, including going to class, going shopping, going to work, watching TV or hanging out with friends.
Some versions of such a world already exist, most evidently through video games. But a truly integrated metaverse – where people can play, earn and spend money, and do other activities – is probably many years, if not decades, away.
Still, the hype around the metaverse is hard to ignore, punctuated by Facebook’s move to change its corporate name to Meta. In November, Iceland parodied Facebook’s announcement and the ever-growing metaverse curiosity. A fake tourism video that showed off Iceland – rebranded as “Icelandverse” – went viral.
In the most ambitious concept for the metaverse, for example, users who visit Metaverse Seoul could buy a souvenir with money they earned in the metaverse, and then bring the item along to other places they go to in the metaverse without switching devices.
That means most metaverse plans until at least 2025 are considered “emergent,” including Seoul’s platform, said Adrian Lee, senior research director at Connecticut-based Gartner, a technology research firm that analyzes metaverse trends.
But it has gained attention as a unique test case of how the emerging technology could apply to government functions. The project is a part of the newly elected Seoul mayor’s glitzy 10-yearpush to solidify the city as a global hub for emerging technology. The metaverse project is estimated to cost nearly $34 million over five years.
City officials are hoping to draw on digital fluency in South Korea, which has a well-established video gaming culture and industry. The mayor is trying to sell a more vibrant future for his city, which is facing a declining population, social cleavages over gender and income inequality, and a deepening real estate crisis as prices soar.
During the pandemic, younger South Koreans have popularized the term “untact” – a spin on the word “contactless” – to describe many virtual events and services, including classes, festivals, concerts and customer service help.
“The fourth industrial revolution, and the explosion of the ‘untact’ culture during corona, demand a change in the way we deliver public service by building a Metaverse Seoul platform,” Oh said during a September announcement.
Already, some city programs and events are being held in a metaverse-like format, including the October conference Oh attended and a Seoul Museum of History event featuring the avatar of Kim Gu, the late hero of the national independence movement, who was celebrated in a posthumous virtual ceremony.
Beginning in 2023, Seoul’s major cultural festivals will also be held in the metaverse and open to virtual tourists from abroad, officials said.
The announcement has drawn mixed reactions from the South Korean public. While some have expressed intrigue, other Seoul residents have raised concerns about its cost and accessibility to older residents.
The metaverse is so new and undefined that it could also pose unforeseen privacy challenges, experts say.
That means city officials may only be able to address security concerns when there is a “high-profile breach of privacy and/or security, usually when there are tangible implications and impact” to those who have already used the platform, said Lee of Gartner.
Seoul government officials say they plan on providing security verification methods and will “minimize the collection and use of personal information,” including allowing the use of pseudonyms so people are not required to give their legal names.
Kim Sang-kyun, a professor of industrial engineering at Kangwon National University who studies the metaverse, said that while there are not many details yet available about the project, city planners should consider accessibility concerns for older residents, potential security breaches and potentially increasing costs.
“As a new communication tool, citizens will be able to easily connect with public information, new opportunities for civic engagement, and use various infrastructures provided by the city,” he said. “However, a new channel of communications can be a high barrier for those who are not as digitally savvy, so the city should consider that aspect in advance.”