Why Seoul is building its own metaverse

By Jaz Low

Interview with Kang Yo Sik, President of Seoul Digital Foundation.

Fortnite’s wildly imaginative live events are a taste of the future of the internet. Its virtual concert with Ariana Grande featured a skyscraper-high avatar that strutted and soared around candy-coloured sets, with millions of attendees decked out in their favourite costumes immersed in the otherworldly experience.

This was one of the most exciting experiments with the metaverse, where users can interact in a digital replica of the real world. Governments are just beginning to explore how the metaverse can transform public services.

South Korea’s capital, for instance, will create virtual copies of its public services and cultural icons. Kang Yo Sik, President of the Seoul Digital Foundation (SDF), shares the city’s plans to join the metaverse and how this project could improve citizen lives.

Public services in the metaverse

Seoul plans to make public services available in the metaverse by 2023, Kang shares. It will establish a virtual city hall where citizens can meet avatars of public officials, resolve their complaints, and receive consultancy services.

A virtual city hall makes public services more accessible for residents as it overcomes time, space, and language barriers. In particular, the platform allows vulnerable communities such as the disabled to engage with public servants in a safe and convenient manner.

Citizens can also file other types of administrative requests through the virtual city hall. These include reserving public facilities such as a library meeting room and a tennis court.

Seoul is a particularly good place to start experimenting with public services in the metaverse. Officials are hoping to tap the digital fluency of Seoul citizens, wrote The Washington Post. Citizens have also become familiar with contact-free services since the pandemic, The Guardian reported.

Metaverse New Year's Eve festival

The capital city is moving its representative festivals onto the metaverse for everyone to enjoy.

SDF participated in the virtual bell-ringing ceremony organised by the Seoul Metropolitan Government on New Year’s Eve. Avatars wore traditional Korean costumes, watched comedy and music performances, and snapped photos in front of the virtual belfry.

Year-end bell-ringing festival in Seoul’s metaverse.

The event shifted online for the second year to keep in line with Covid-19 protocols and had over 15,000 attendees. The metaverse can comfortably support large-scale events whilst ensuring safety - a win over the real world where health advisories restrict mass gatherings.

SDF’s metaverse office

Another exciting development is that metaverse-based remote working environments are underway. As an agency that prides itself on driving digital innovations in Seoul, SDF launched its metaverse office in December 2021.

The new office sits in Gather Town, a video conferencing platform where individuals log in with their avatars and can roam the virtual world to meet their co-workers. The Foundation was able to create a replica of its physical office with Gather Town’s fully customisable spaces.

SDF’s office in Gathertown which is identical to its physical headquarters.

Employees primarily converge on Gather Town when they have meetings. Having a shared workspace can impact team culture, productivity, efficiency, and the general well-being of staff at work, Kang notes.

With most teleconferencing applications, it is obvious that people are in different environments, Kang points out over the Teams interview. But in Gather Town, everyone is in the same space and this makes remote work less isolating, he says.

Bridging the digital divide

Unfortunately, technological front-runners like South Korea are not immune to the digital gap between young and old. SDF sees bridging the digital divide as its most important mission, Kang emphasises.

The Foundation employs senior citizens who are adept at technology to teach their peers how to use digital devices. There are two reasons for this.

“First, we want to offer the elderly employment by hiring them as mentors,” Kang notes. Second, we believe that the elderly can empathise with their peers and deliver teaching that is most suitable to their needs.”

SDF also uses robots to conduct digital skills training for Seoul’s senior citizens. Using spoken instructions, facial recognition, and gestures, the robots explain how to message grandchildren and share photos with friends.

The robots can also read emotions and will reinforce teaching when it detects confusion.

While using advanced technology might seem counterintuitive, robots have a distinct advantage. Unlike most humans, they are endlessly patient and will happily repeat instructions as often as needed, Kang highlights.

Seoul’s metaverse will broaden access to public services and provide opportunities for South Koreans to connect to their cultural heritage. SDF will work alongside the municipal government to not only shape the future of the metaverse but also the future of digital literacy in Seoul.

Images from the Seoul Digital Foundation.