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When Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon unveiled his city’s multibillion-won metaverse project two weeks ago during a press conference, the first question reporters asked was why? Why go out of the way to build a platform that already exists in the private sector in so many different forms?

It comes down to two reasons, Oh replied, after admitting there was “a lot of talk” about costs.

“Users’ private information is safer on a public metaverse platform compared to a private one,” Oh told the press. “The second reason has to do with consistency,” the Seoul mayor continued, adding that unlike metaverse platforms built by private companies, which usually run short term, the one Seoul was trying to create was here to stay.

Ever since Oh promoted Metaverse Seoul as something that could be the next KakaoTalk — the nation’s most widely used mobile messenger app — nearly 6,000 people have signed up to use the platform, according to data provided by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

After launching the first phase of Metaverse Seoul on Jan. 16, the city is now working toward launching the second phase this year or next, and the third by 2026.

As of Tuesday morning, the city government tallied some 12,100 log-ins.

So far, Metaverse Seoul, available on Google Play and the Apple Store, allows users to chat, hold meetings, play games, get advice on starting and running businesses, visit famous tourist attractions in Seoul and ask questions about life in the capital to the city’s 120 Dasan Call Center, either on a smartphone or PC tablet.

The city admits there are widely used alternatives such as KakaoTalk, Zoom, YouTube, or the more conventional in-person and phone call methods for each service, but that doesn't matter. Over the next five years, the city wants to add every administrative service to the initiative, allowing Seoul citizens to handle all their tasks in the virtual world.

By capitalizing on the world’s interest in the metaverse, officials say they see the project as an opportunity to propel Seoul to becoming a “leading smart city,” stressing that no other city in the world has built a public metaverse platform before.

The city government spent 2 billion won ($1.6 million) developing the first phase of Metaverse Seoul and has allocated an additional 2.8 billion won this year to developing the second phase.

In each phase, the platform is built by a private company that won a bid from the city. A software company named Naviworks, based in Anyang, Gyeonggi won the public bid to build the first phase.

The platform is currently provided mainly in Korean, though conversations shared in the chat box are translated into English via Google Translate with the click of an icon. Official English, Chinese and Japanese versions will be released later this year, said the city’s Digital Policy Bureau, which manages Metaverse Seoul.

By the end of 2023, Seoul’s goal is to reach 100,000 visits on the metaverse platform.

Kim Jin-man, director general of the Digital Policy Bureau, said the city government was holding an event through Feb. 12 to receive feedback from users, with prizes offered to the best opinions.

One core area of improvement that will be worked on in the second phase will be making the platform easy to use for older citizens. Concerns about a possible digital divide were raised during the January press conference with Seoul Mayor Oh, who acknowledged it was the biggest problem the city was trying to solve at the moment.

The city’s solution, Oh said, will be a so-called “easy mode” — larger icons and less text. Even if older citizens are slow to join, Oh believes time and word-of-mouth will eventually attract them.

“That’s how KakaoTalk began,” said Oh. “Once [older people realize] they can easily use [the platform], they will start logging in.”

For those who can’t get the knack of navigating through the metaverse, the city said it was considering special classes offering digital tips.

Other programs under review for addition to Metaverse Seoul include a virtual experience zone where users can learn and practice how to prevent disasters or escape from them.

How Metaverse Seoul will be updated and to what extent will largely come down to the amount of budget approved by the Seoul Metropolitan Council.

“The metaverse will be the most crucial mode of communication in the future,” said Oh. “We’ll hopefully see more users [on Metaverse Seoul going forward] by making improvements to the system now."


Autor(en)/Author(s): Lee Sung-Eun

Quelle/Source: Korea JoongAng Daily, 31.01.2023

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