Metaverse Dreams of A Shared, Connected and Expanded City

The 2021 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATIONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: SangKyun Kim (Professor at Kangwon University)

Why Do We Desire Cities?

Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had something in common. They both built houses or small cities and lived in groups to survive in the wilderness. But outcomes were different. Homo sapiens indeed survived, while Neanderthals became part of history. Unfortunately, we can spot in our cities several factors that pushed Neanderthals into extinction. We’ll explore them further in a unique world known as the metaverse. 

Can Cities Solve Everything?

People love cities, but three things are missing – sharing, connection, and expansion.

Examples of sharing in cities include the subway system which is a low-cost transportation means or huge medical devices available at large hospitals for certain fees. It is true that the number of people who prefer private spaces or devices instead of sharing is increasing. But still, a majority of urban dwellers enjoy living in cities because they benefit from various sharing services. 

According to a survey, a percentage of Seoul’s population in multi-unit housing and cohousing communities has surpassed the 70% mark. It’s not just in Seoul that we see this trend. In most cities around the world, a great number of people live in close quarters. But we need to think about whether we’re truly connected or don’t feel lonely in cities where the close proximity is maintained. People always dream of new things while dwelling in cities. We live in 2021, but sometimes long for good old days or wonder about the future. Our homes are in cities but we miss being near the sea or mountains. This shows our desire to infinitely expand the social realm. 

Given this, can we turn to the metaverse to balance out what’s missing in our cities and find solutions for sharing, connection, and expansion?  

The metaverse is a new digital world that can expand the way we live. Social media which has become a daily staple or games set in virtual spaces are great examples of the metaverse. How can we use the metaverse in more meaningful ways than just for everyday entertainment? Will it be possible to leverage the metaverse to address the issue related to sharing, connection, and expansion in our cities? 

Discussion on the first keyword, or ‘sharing’, can start from where we live. Communal living in cities means one individual cannot claim full ownership of everything and must share with others. We share numerous facilities including building entrances, but more spaces will need to be shared going forward. Perhaps we can move the actual spaces we share into the metaverse. Or the metaverse itself can become an object of sharing. Rooftops, concert halls, commercial facilities, and other virtual spaces within the current metaverse are for everyone to enjoy. They’re being used for many different purposes by specific platforms or businesses. By incorporating cities into this trend, we can create readily accessible, virtual spaces in the metaverse and share them with people in an effective manner. 

To explore the next keyword, ‘connection’, we’ll examine a mobile app that can light a ‘candle’. It was one of the ideas suggested by students a few years ago as part of coursework. When launched, the app shows a map based on the user’s current location and allows the user to light a candle for people nearby with similar interests or troubles. At first, it wasn’t clear what the app was trying to do. The student who created the app came up with the idea when he was in high school studying for the college entrance exam late at night. He looked outside and saw other windows with lights on and thought, ‘I’m not the only one going through this and there’s someone out there with me’. It gave him a sense of comfort and helped him design the app later. And last winter, another app providing similar service was launched. A platform for buying or selling used goods within local communities offered a map and users could update locations of street vendors selling Korean pancakes or fish-shaped pastries. There wasn’t any reward for posting a location, but local users shared their interests or preferences based on where they were. It was a fascinating case to see how people build a connection with others.  

We can take a deep dive and consider the possibility of connecting feelings among people. Cognitive scientists study our emotions by dividing them into about thirty groups. But sometimes I wonder whether the subjects of such detailed research fully understand at least five emotions of people close to them, let alone twenty. For example, we often read articles about how some apartment complexes or high-rise residential buildings prohibit delivery service providers from using carts or elevators. Perhaps the issue arises from a lack of understanding and experience on what delivery drivers do on a daily basis or how they feel about their job, rather than extremely bad intentions of one party. Suppose a deliveryman creates a persona account on SNS and shares his stories while delivering or taking a break. In that case, we will have better understanding of life and emotions of those working behind platforms that make our cities more abundant and efficient. 

“Connection of Five People”

How many friends do you have on popular SNS such as Facebook or Instagram? We tend to have a wide network of online friends, but it’s difficult to remember all of our friends in real life due to limited memory. One individual typically has up to 35 good acquaintances, 15 close friends, and 5 loved ones with whom he or she can share the most intimate feelings. This notion is known as ‘Dunbar’s number’ because it was first proposed by cultural anthologist Dunbar. Using these numbers, we’ll look at ‘urban loneliness’ that may seem a bit odd.  

Why do we feel lonely and isolated in cities packed with people? 

What makes us think we’re alone when there are people everywhere we go? 

It’s not because we don’t have enough people in our life. We feel lonely because we’re missing a close connection of 5 people as suggested by ‘Dunbar’s number’. Many of us coexist in the same space with just a wall in between. We maintain professional ties, but our personal lives are completely separated. Given this, the metaverse can bring together 5 people who are disconnected and isolated either psychologically or physically and help establish a close network. 

As we live in 2021, we sometimes miss the days gone by or paint a hopeful future. It’s part of the human desire to yearn for the past and future while living in the present. Such desire cannot be fulfilled by physical space, although technological advancement is making it possible. The ‘expansion of AR glasses’ for augmented reality is one of the major changes expected to take place in next five years. As personal devices replacing smartphones, AR glasses can enable us to plan cities beyond the past, present and future or to view what is there already through a different lens. 

We should also think about expanding spaces without being bound by time. For example, a project connected Singapore that has an average temperature of 29°C year-round with Santa Claus Village in Finland at the opposite side of the earth. People from both locations were able to interact with someone they had never met through a screen and watched the snow falling from the sky together. It demonstrated that two physically apart spaces can be connected beyond constraints. What will happen if we connect our cities with many different regions? The metaverse technology can help create such cities in the near future, linking seashores and mountains within Korean territory or allowing Seoul and other international cities to share cultures. 

We’ve looked at the metaverse through three keywords – sharing, connection, and expansion. The future of metaverse has a great potential to the extent that it’s difficult to predict with certainty or to set a limit. More research and efforts are required, but we need to keep in mind that the basis of human life and cities cannot be found in online platforms, the digital world, or the metaverse. We still live in a physical world and will continue to do so. Having said that, we can turn to the metaverse to discover various ways to enhance values in life. I hope to see more shared, connected, and expanded Seoul through the metaverse in the near future. 

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