"Oasis," the main background of the representative Metaverse film <Ready Player One>, is a virtual world where everything that can be done in real life is possible. The characters in the oasis live a life almost like reality, such as working to earn money and purchasing goods. This is the only place where people can escape from reality, overcome their shortcomings, and challenge things they have never done before against a realistic backdrop. Now, the story in this movie may not be a fantasy anymore. Technology is developing rapidly, and virtual worlds that are the same as reality are gradually being built. What will the world look like in the future?
What is the Metaverse?
"SNS" is transforming into a "Metaverse" that can cross time and space through the development of 3D technology. Metaverse is a combination of meta, which means transcendence and virtuality, and universe. This concept first appeared in Snow Crash by American sci-fi novelist Neil Stevenson in 1992. It also refers to a 3D virtual world in which social, economic, and cultural activities found in the real world are carried out beyond the limits of time and space. One of the representative platforms is Zepeto, which is run by Naver Z. Unlike the existing virtual reality and augmented reality, it is possible not only to socialize, play and shop, but also to buy and sell goods. At "Black Pink World," fans can gather to enjoy themselves by waving cheering sticks while watching pictures and videos of members. They also sell and make money in costumes worn by avatars that have been created by platform users. It is like a mirror world that reflects what is being done in reality.
These Metaverses have received particular attention in Generation Z. Naver's augmented reality avatar app Zepeto surpassed 200 million subscribers as of February, with 80 percent of them teenagers. Roblox, a mobile game platform in the U.S., which is drawing attention as a Metaverse, is also known to be used by 55 percent of children and teenagers under the age of 16 in the U.S., who spend 2.5 times more time here than on YouTube.1) This situation is due to the multi-persona aspect. Seo Yonggu, a professor in the Division of Business Administration at Sookmyung Women's University, said, "Even if you are in a wheelchair due to the inconvenience of moving in the real world, the era of becoming a professional basketball player has opened up in the Metaverse. Everyone can realize their dreams and desires without space constraints."2) For Generation Z, who are used to creating another self online or through SNS, Metaverse provides an opportunity to create a sub character as desired. Because virtual spaces can be created according to the situation to enhance realism is also garnering attention as a unique feature of the Metaverse.
Metaverse in various fields
Various industrial sectors are joining the Metaverse market as the boundaries between reality and virtual reality begin to fall apart. In particular, the distribution industry is making various efforts to attract the MZ generation, who responds quickly and sensitively to trends, as consumers. The global fashion industry made inroads early on, aiming at the fact that Metaverse users mainly decorate their avatars with clothes and reveal their personalities in that way. For instance, the luxury brand "GUCCI" has been established on both Zepeto and Roblox and is actively communicating with Generation Z. Zepeto, in particular, opened a virtual store called Gucci Villa to sell bags and clothing. All the clothes sold there were limited edition and are not available now. Zepeto tantalizes users, saying, "Don't miss the upcoming collections." As such, 'limited edition marketing' of luxury goods also applies in the virtual world. Experts say that people open their wallets because of the properties of Metaverse that reproduce reality equally. Samantha Wolf, an associate professor at New York University, said, "The avatar made of digital twins reflects the identity of the user. The $10 Louis Vuitton avatar costume may be expensive in the virtual world, but if you think that you can buy clothes from your favorite fashion designer through digital purchases, it becomes an inexpensive luxury."3) In other words, the better the reality and virtual space are connected, the more virtual space will develop. Real businesses are attempting to link virtual space with reality.
Political and public institutions outside the commercial sector have also entered the Metaverse world. Park Yongjin, the youngest presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, held the inauguration ceremony of the presidential camp on June 21 using Zepeto, and prepared a space to receive and communicate with the public about policies. Park said, "We want to show a different side of ourselves from the camp because it is the first launch of the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is a symbol of the generational interchange of politics."4) In order to appeal to the younger generation who are seeking a new phenomenon, the political community is also making unusual attempts. Real estate brokerage startup "Jikbang" began telecommuting using the Gathertown platform in February, followed by non-face-to-face office experiments at state-run companies with a strong conservative image. Gathertown is a Metaverse platform created by California startup Gather that implements virtual space based on the office structure. Chairman Cho Sungil said, "Similar to when we came to the office, we are using it as a means to increase concentration of our work and communicate efficiently."5) Until now, it has been pointed out that telecommuting using video conferencing through Zoom has limitations in communication. The main disadvantages of this were a decrease in the sense of belonging to the organization, a lack of communication, and a lack of work immersion. Metaverse Office is expected to compensate for these shortcomings.
The medical community, which is complex and has high barriers to change, is also introducing Metaverses from education to clinical trials. On May 29, Bundang Seoul National University Hospital performed lung cancer surgery in a smart operating room using Metaverse technology. Jeon Sanghoon, a professor of chest surgery, said, "Because of the medical community's characteristics, which can improve proficiency only by seeing and experiencing many cases of patients, Metaverses are worth a lot in the medical community."6) In other words, Metaverses in the medical community can be the best way to increase the effectiveness of education in a situation where practice is difficult due to COVID-19. In fact, this was also applied to domestic medical education sites. Seoul National University Medical School introduced clinical practice training using Metaverses in its medical curriculum. This class covers the processing of anatomical structures directly based on actual data of patients who need surgery or re-operation using Metaverse technology. In non-face-to-face education for nursing students and paramedics, disaster-related training is provided through a program called "Vulabo" to allow unlimited practice of sites where emergency situations seem to have occurred to actual patients.
Concern about this technology
Meanwhile, some have pointed out that in order to create a healthy Metaverse world, it is necessary to think about its adverse functions. "In order for Metaverse technology to become a universal communication method, we must be wary of the possibility of digital divide due to economic differences," said Kim Heungmook, head of the Media Research Division at the Korea Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute.7) As Metaverse technology is a digital technology, there is a risk of discrimination in accessibility due to the high prices of VR equipment. In addition, as most of the Metaverse contents currently commercialized are consumed by teenagers to thirtysomethings, it is necessary to be careful not to alienate the elderly. An office worker recently joined Roblox, but canceled it a few days later. "These days, people around me have told me that Metaverses are popular. And my elementary school son also liked it, so I tried it once. But honestly, I don't understand why it's in the spotlight. I can't get rid of the feeling that Metaverse is too highly valued for the level of technology."8) Amid the growing positive outlook for Metaverse, there are also some questions about the need for this technology. The phenomenon that "digital natives," a generation that has grown up in the digital environment since childhood, are driving the growth of Metaverses is certainly inevitable. However, it is also necessary to think about services that can attract the attention of "digital immigrants" who were born in the analog era amid the aging society.
In addition, the virtual world is also a "world", so it has the potential to suffer from numerous crimes. Not only digital crimes such as data security hacking, but also real-world crimes can occur in virtual PLE spaces as well. Among them, things such as "Avatar Stalking" and "Avatar Sexual Harassment" are happening. Users can sensationalize the appearance of avatars, follow other users constantly, and portray sexual activity with avatars. Chatting requiring sex trade and sex harassment are also frequent. In particular, sex crimes against minors are emerging as a serious problem. In April, a 23-year-old man who continued to attempt access to minors aged 7 to 12 through Roblox was sentenced to two years in prison and a five-year Sexual Harm Prevention Order. Accordingly, there is a need to establish specific discussions on how to regulate and punish crimes on Metaverses. In particular, it seems critical to come up with protective measures because teenagers, who are key users of the Metaverse, are being exposed as targets. If the criminal is an adult, it may be punishable by reporting, but if they are both minors, there is no way to prevent the crime unless the Metaverse developer is involved. Also, since most of the Metaverses are based on anonymity, it is not known whether the other person is an adult until the report is made. Some say that it is necessary to discuss the "Metaverse real-name system," "expanding the scope of cyber sex crimes and strengthening punishment" and "regulating Metaverse developers."
The issue of invasion of privacy is also unavoidable. On Metaverses, users live as anonymous avatars, and in the process, personal information such as experience time and conversations with exchange partners is collected by the operator. For those who have established the Metaverse program, more users' information is transferred than necessary, creating a "databank" of users. Users in virtual reality seem to be walking around freely, doing what they want to do, and having fun with their friends. In fact, they only get as much freedom as the algorithm built by the platform owner allows. Because of the bias of algorithms, people are trapped in a small world by not having access to a variety of news, but only to certain and similar news. In connection with this phenomenon, researchers at Seoul National University's engineering school predicted that in 70 years, future citizens will be divided into four different classes. Among them, 0.001% of the "platform owners" will monopolize wealth and power at the top of the human race. Below that will be "Platform Star," "Artificial Intelligence Robot," and "Precariat (General Citizens)" respectively. And among them, "Precariat" is the lowest working class and is expected to be 99.997% of the total. There is a fear that the development of technologies such as Metaverses will reverse the era of equality.
The future to come
Despite this situation, the Metaverse is widely expected to become a trend in the future. Smartphones were unfamiliar to people when first released, but just as they later permeated society, it is predicted that Metaverses will soon be established in daily life. However, some have pointed out that the current popularity of Metaverses may go by in a flash. The biggest problem for the Metaverse is that when users move away from the virtual world, the reason for the platform's existence disappears. When the COVID-19 pandemic ends and daily life returns to its original state, the Metaverse can be competitive only by providing more valuable information and entertainment than obtained from offline activities. Society will need to continue to pay attention and watch whether the Metaverse will become the center of the future after COVID-19.
1) No Jaewoong, "Children's Playground 'Metaverse' Is Coming", Edaily, February 15, 2021
2) Kang Minsoo, "It Goes Up Just by Brushing…", Money Today, July 21, 2021
3) Lee Jihyun, "Generation Z's "I'm Going to Dress My Avatar in Gucci.""D2A" to Grow To 50 Trillion Won Market", Hankyung IT, May 27, 2021
4) Park Jungkyu, "[Metaverse Age] Political Circles Are Also Around...Meta? Verse?", NEWSIS, June 29, 2021
5) Jung Jieun, "I Work in the Metaverse Office, Which Is Practically the Same", Hankyung Life, July 6, 2021
6) Lee Seulbi, "Medical Community Starts Metaverse…Reigning the Telemedicine Controversy?", Health Chosun, July 22, 2021
7) Koo Eunmo, "Metaverse, Understands and Evolves into a New Platform in Daily Life", Asian Economy, May 1, 2021
8) Kim Dongwook, ""What is Metaverse?"Hair Tearing Senior", Hankook Ilbo, July 19, 2021
Kim Seol Yunha / Reporter
Oh Song Minyeong / Reporter