Expanding digital world
Seoul, Barbados check into metaverse as govts eye virtual presence
Published: Nov 25, 2021 05:38 PM
A creative picture of metaverse Photo: VCG

A creative picture of metaverse Photo: VCG

The metaverse will soon be a place not only to just buy virtual goods and meet avatars, but also to get essential public services, as governments prepare to enter the rapidly expanding digital world despite concerns about privacy and other rights.

The city of Seoul and the island nation of Barbados earlier in November said they will enter the metaverse to provide administrative and consular services, respectively.

Other cities and countries may follow suit if the technology becomes more mainstream, analysts say.

The statements came amid a flurry of announcements from companies including Facebook - now named Meta - saying they would invest in the metaverse, an online realm that uses augmented and virtual reality (VR) to help users interact.

"It is in the best interest of governments to know about this universe intimately because the virtual world will replicate life and business," said Keith Carter, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's School of Computing.

Metaverse - a term first coined in science fiction - is a combination of the prefix "meta," meaning beyond, and "universe."

It has been used to describe a range of shared worlds accessed via the internet, from fully-immersive VR spaces to augmented reality accessed through devices such as smart glasses.

The global metaverse market is expected to reach about $6 billion in 2021 and nearly $42 billion by 2026, according to research firm Strategy Analytics, helped by increased interest in virtual spaces for work and leisure during the pandemic.

There will be new roles for governments in this space where jurisdiction isn't as clearly defined, said Steve Benford, a professor of computer science at the University of Nottingham.

"Cybersecurity, freedom and protection of information, and online safety are issues that governments are already interested in, and this list can be expected to grow if and when the metaverse becomes an everyday experience for people," he said.

Civil complaints

Seoul is the first major city to announce its entry into the metaverse, with the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) building a "metaverse ecosystem for all administrative services regarding the economy, culture, tourism, education and civil complaints."

Metaverse Seoul, a platform for public services, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022. A virtual city hall, where citizens can meet avatars of public officials and file complaints, will be set up in 2023, it said in a statement.

Barbados will open what it says will be the world's first metaverse embassy in the virtual reality platform Decentraland, with embassies on other platforms also planned.

"We are a small island nation - this gives us a way to expand our diplomatic footprint without adding dozens of physical embassies, which is not feasible for us," said Gabriel Abed, who is leading the Caribbean nation's metaverse strategy.

Smaller nations have a lot to gain in the metaverse, he said, noting that Barbados was also quick to embrace a digital currency, like other small nations including Malta, the Bahamas, and El Salvador.

Limited opportunities

While it is unclear whether a full replication of real life is possible in the metaverse, or even how long it will take to build, tech and legal experts are divided on who will wield control, and how much cities and national governments can gain.

Users are pushing for an open, decentralized universe, and it is possible that the metaverse might "eventually become its own constituency or jurisdiction, with its own representatives and civil service," said Benford.

Governments may also make the metaverse more inclusive, with Seoul saying it will have "numerous services for the vulnerable, including the disabled," for their safety and convenience. It is also training older citizens to help navigate the virtual world.

But the current technology is not good enough, or cheap enough, so cities "face big costs and no guarantee on returns," said Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia's Griffith University.

"I doubt many cities will be rushing to set up in the metaverse ... the opportunities right now are limited and very expensive," he said, noting that people have been quite resistant to VR since it became mainstream a few years ago.