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‘Metaverse’: From Sci-Fi to Reality in South Korea

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‘Metaverse’ as a concept was first introduced in sci-fi novels and films. The term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash’. In the novel, he envisioned various life-like avatars who met in realistic 3D buildings. It was later used in Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One.” Metaverse is a blend of multiple elements of technology, including augmented reality, virtual reality and video where users “live” within a digital universe. Supporters of metaverse envision its users living, playing, staying connected with friends through everything ranging from conferences to concerts and even virtual tours around the world. Matthew Ball, managing partner of venture capital firm Epyllion Industries, in a February 2021 essay on his website said that “Right now, we are on the cusp of the next internet”. As the tech-giant Facebook recently changed its name to ‘Meta’ and announced its full-fledged turn to metaverse, the concept has been a hot topic of conversation. However, Facebook is not the only tech company invested in creating a metaverse where people can interact with each other in their various avatars. Video games such as Roblox and Fortnite are already popular among Gen Z, where they create and interact with each other within their own universe. 

South Korea is an emerging key player in the metaverse, starting off with its strong gaming industry and popular culture content that attracts fans globally. South Korea has the world’s fourth-largest gaming market. The South Korean gaming industry has already been engaging in virtual engagement through massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Now, Korean game companies are looking to expand into the metaverse by using their own game characters and intellectual properties. For example, Nexon, the leading game company in South Korea, plans to launch new metaverse content using its popular Maplestory IP. Another leading game company, Netmarble, has created a subsidiary metaverse entertainment company to develop a virtual reality platform for virtual K-pop idols. 

Metaverse is extremely attractive in the country beyond the realm of gaming as well.

One of the leading metaverse platforms in South Korea is Naver Z Corporation’s Zepeto, with over 900 million users globally, 90% of whom log in from outside of South Korea. It is used for social gatherings as well as shopping. Popular brands such as Nike, Gucci and Ralph Lauren have opened virtual stores within Zepeto to sell their virtual products. Zepeto studio also allows its users to design their own products and monetize them on the platform.

Two major retailers in the country have recently introduced metaverse and artificial intelligence elements to their shoppers to enhance their shopping experience. GS Shop introduced home shopping via metaverse by showing inner-workings of a food processing facility. This was aimed to reassure their customer of the quality of the facility and that of the food which was up for sale. Customers who had GS Shop turned scans of the physical facility into 3D representations. This way, customers who had augmented reality devices, similar to the haptic gloves Meta previewed last month, could tour the facility in the virtual world to see the conditions under which their food was being produced.

Apart from shopping, the K-pop industry has also invested in the metaverse. BTS successfully launched its new single, “Dynamite,” on Fortnite in 2020 and other K-pop artists like Black Pink are utilizing metaverse platforms such as Zepeto to engage with their fans. On November 30 2021, the South Korean government launched a metaverse platform, in simple words, a 3D online world, called ‘Korea World’ that is dedicated to the Hallyu Wave. Hallyu Wave refers to the global popularity of Korean pop music dramas and films. Korea World will feature an exhibit hall with videos and articles created by foreigners who are interested in the Hallyu wave. On the platform, visitors will be able to interact with each other in different avatars. In addition to this, Korea World also announced that it will be organizing a special event where visitors can try on various elements of Korean traditional attire including hanbok. The official Korea World website introduces the platform as “a virtual space created by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s Overseas Culture Promotion Centre so that foreigners can experience and communicate Korean culture anytime, anywhere. According to the official Korea World website, the exhibit hall is “the first space revealed” in the new online world. “[It] is a gallery modelled after the appearance of the octagonal pavilion, and exhibits novel and diverse Hallyu contents from a foreigner’s perspective.”  

With its entry into the metaverse through gaming, K-pop and expansion into other domains such as shopping, South Korea is all set to introduce its capital city into the metaverse. Seoul seeks to become the first-ever government with a full-service digital world which is named ‘Metaverse Seoul’. This new digital world will ensure seamless interactions between the citizens and the state. 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 cell phones. Metaverse Seoul begins this New Year’s eve and 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.

With the advent of the global pandemic, the importance of the virtual world has increased with almost all real-world activities being forced to shift online. What we once only read in novels and watched in films has become the reality of today. There is a merger of the physical and the digital world. With technological advancements, people are able to carry on almost all activities from going to school, work, watching TV or hanging out with friends in the virtual space. But a truly integrated metaverse — where people can play, earn and spend money, and do other activities is still far away. Along with technological advances we need to consider other fundamental aspects of the metaverse. 

With technology heading into new territory, there will be persistent debates on data protection, privacy and regulation. With the expansion of economic activities into the virtual world, the use of blockchain technologies such as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and cryptocurrencies will increase. There is also an economic barrier as the virtual reality goggles are in the range of $300 to$600, and not so widely available or accessible as a cellphone. Most important of all, fast and reliable internet, and the infrastructure to match, are crucial in order to make these metaverse platforms accessible from anywhere. South Korea is one of the most digitally connected societies in the world, with one of the fastest internet speeds. However, the recent national internet outage caused by a routing problem at KT showcased its vulnerability as well.

The South Korean government’s early engagement in metaverse is a good way to start creating a safe environment for companies to experiment, be innovative and set up norms in this new digital space. Even though it is too early for the metaverse to completely replace our reality, virtual engagements are here to stay. Alongside the current global debate on the regulation of big tech and increased investments in metaverse, it will be interesting to see the role of South Korea in shaping this new technological realm. 

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