The rapid advancement of video technologies, social media platforms, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality has shown that we can create a lifelike simulation of existence, real and imagined.  That simulation is called the Metaverse. This Metaverse has the potential to fully change how our cities approach architecture, tourism, education, and even healthcare. All of this is leading us to a new era; the era of Society 5.0.

Our Cities, Now More Digital Than Ever Before: Welcome to the Metaverse

Our cities, now more digital than ever before

While there is undoubtedly a lot of hype and speculation about what the Metaverse is and is not and what it might become, there are some very studied interpretations of what it might mean. One such is Society 5.0, proposed as a future society that Japan should aspire to:
“A human-centred society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space.”

And now, the leadership of various cities is becoming interested in how to utilise this idea for the common good. In a recent interview, Lena Geraghty, Director of Sustainability and Innovation at the National League of Cities (NLC), explained that:

“The metaverse is definitely the new buzzword in a long list of emerging technology buzzwords, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for city leaders to get familiar and comfortable about what it could mean for their communities.”

“The metaverse has real potential to improve city services and the lives of residents if deployed well. For that to happen, city leaders need to be at the forefront of the conversation,” she noted.

Cognitively-enabled spaces

Immersion in the Metaverse will significantly extend the span of our conscious existence, limited only by our imagination.  Our real-world presence can be enhanced, enriched, facilitated and augmented with a virtual overlay that allows us to explore beyond our physical and social boundaries. Seoul was one of the first cities to announce that it will increasingly provide its public services through its own Metaverse platform. Soon after, various Chinese cities followed. So what services could be provided in the Metaverse in the cities of the future?

Virtual tourism

Seoul’s famous tourist attractions, such as Gwanghwamun Square, Deoksugung, and Namdaemun Market, are meant to be virtually created on the platform as a “special zone for a virtual tour.” Even the no longer existent, historical sites such as Donuimun can be renominated – or reincarnated – in this new virtual space. What is more, other tourist attractions, such as the Seoul Lantern Festival, will be held in the Metaverse so that everyone – no matter their location, disability status, or health status – can enjoy it.

“Metaverse is evolving into different forms based on technological levels and user demand. In particular, it is gaining traction as a new paradigm for post-COVID-19,” said Park Jong-Soo, Director General of Smart City Policy Bureau in Seoul.

He continued, “The SMG will pioneer a new continent called the Metaverse Seoul where public demand and private technologies are combined. For all age groups to enjoy the benefits, we will work on the Metaverse Seoul and make Seoul a smart, inclusive city.”

Virtual Education

Metaverse-enabled VR technology is already transforming the education industry in many cities.  The 2015 Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality: 7th International Conference mentioned Google Classroom as an example of augmented reality that can replace the physical classroom.  With an estimated 2.4 billion mobile Augmented Reality users worldwide by 2023, this is a viable channel for many more people to access training and education.

How does it work? AR technologies can help learners explore the real world and subjects interactively, often by displaying related information such as text and videos.  For a child exploring a local park, AR glasses could allow them to identify and learn more about each plant they encounter.  This type of practical learning is highly beneficial for children’s development.

Virtual Healthcare

Metaverse-adjacent technologies will provide new and innovative ways of looking after our health. Shanghai has recently allocated $1.5B to a Metaverse development fund, a part of which is to be spent on healthcare.

A study by Luma Tabbaa et al. (2019) evidenced how VR can help patients with Alzheimer’s disease.  VR tours provide a simulation that has helped dementia patients tap into old memories, resulting in positive mental stimulation and improved social interaction.  Patient recovery of earlier memories has also helped caregivers learn more about their patients’ past lives.  VR environments allow patients to experience things that they would not be able to otherwise, improving their overall well-being and mental health in the process.
In other patients with loss or lack of mobility, VR offers the possibility of exploring the world, and the cities they inhabit, on their terms.

Virtual Architecture

The challenge with the ‘Great Art’ has always been the limitations of turning ideas into reality, both physically and financially. VR changes that and unlocks a new world of possibility.  Architects and designers can play with, test, refine and gauge interest in design concepts in virtual space before physical construction.

3D and VR have been used to bring design concepts to life before they are built and manufactured, and virtual worlds offer new opportunities for very different design concepts.  This has been a popular approach with architects, property developers, and self-builders, who have built walk-though versions of their plans.

In March 2021, ‘Mars House‘ designed in May 2020 by Artist Krista Kim, became the first Metaverse home to be sold (for $500k).  The transparent virtual building was created using the 3D rendering platform Unreal Engine and “can be built in real life by glass furniture-makers in Italy,” according to Krista.

Mars House is a standalone virtual reality experience, which does not classify as virtual real estate per se.  However, the owner can have the design built in the physical world and an infinite number of virtual ones.

Conclusion

We live now in a world where interacting daily, moment by moment, on global digital platforms has become a natural, expected and essential part of our lives.  Today, we assemble and zoom in on each other in virtual offices, make and share digital art in virtual galleries and museums, play games together, and have a well-being workshop, all online. This can be seen as a growing Metaverse. Our cities can – and will – adjust to this new reality, creating augmented spaces that are more accessible, fair, disability-friendly, and above all, democratic.