With five minutes to waste on your commute or between meetings, which app do you open? For many of us, it’s Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or a game app. But for more and more teens, it’s a metaverse platform for checking in on your avatar.
Your avatar can look like how you appear in the real world. Or you could pretend to be someone, or something, completely different. This is half the attraction.
“My avatar is who I want to be that day,” says Monica Louise, also known as Monica Quin on South Korea’s hugely popular metaverse social media app, Zepeto.
“In the real world, it’s not easy for us to cut our hair and then grow it back, but in the digital world we can do it with just one click.”
So what exactly is a metaverse? It’s an alternative world online: a little bit of virtual reality and a little bit of augmented reality. And it was touted as the next big thing in technology. Zepeto is Asia’s largest metaverse platform, with nearly a quarter of a billion users – it was launched just three years ago.
About 70% of these people are women, some are young teens, which is unusual, as most rival metaverse platforms like Roblox are dominated by gamers who tend to be male.
“Many of our users haven’t used Instagram yet, and more of our users haven’t used Facebook yet,” said Rudy Lee, Zepeto’s chief strategy officer. “We are the first social network they interact with”.
And 90% of them are located outside South Korea, just like 28-year-old Monica, who lives in Canada, or 19-year-old Hannah, who lives in the United States.
They both joined Zepeto in 2018. For Monica, she enjoyed seeing an electronic version of herself as Hannah found it by accident, scrolling through the app store and was curious.
Escape into an alternate reality
“I’ve never been a huge fan of social media,” Hannah tells me. “There is a lot of pressure and I haven’t had a very pleasant experience, but on Zepeto you don’t have to show your face and there is no obligation.”
For Monica, her avatar Zepeto now earns her an impressive six-figure salary.
Monica is a so-called virtual influencer, who designs digital items like dresses and tops that buy other avatars. Fashion plays a huge role on this platform, where creators have sold over 1.6 billion virtual fashion items to date.
They are sold using an in-game currency called “zem” and Monica’s items are priced between one and five zems each. For every sale worth 5,000 zem, a creator gets $ 106 (£ 80). Zepeto users pay for these zems with real money.
“Every day we have people designing and publishing tens of thousands of new articles,” says Lee. “I think we are the largest virtual fashion market in the world.”
Big luxury fashion brands like Gucci, Dior and Ralph Lauren, as well as many local and regional fashion brands, are also planning to release their virtual products on the platform.
“There are clothes that I can’t afford to wear in real life, but in the digital world I can buy them all,” says Monica. “I think it’s a huge factor that I’m really involved in that.”
To inspire the next generation of designers like her, Zepeto has announced a scholarship with the Instituto Marangoni Miami (IMM) fashion school. Last month he asked candidates to create a collection for the platform.
But it goes beyond fashion. You can easily start a career as an entertainer or architect in the metaverse.
In this space Hannah is a cartographer, she builds maps on Zepeto, which means she creates “a virtual environment for your avatar and other avatars to explore”.
“It’s kind of like an alternate reality,” he tells me. “I mostly create things that exist in the real world, taking inspiration from real architecture, but a lot of people also create fantasy elements.”
“We began to understand that there were virtual people playing on the street in the metaverse. So, we’re working with music labels to develop virtual singers,” says Lee.
“We are working with other colleges, high schools and online educational institutions to ensure that many more people have access to tools they can use in the metaverse to create their own content and build a real career out of it.”
Digital humans already populate a large portion of South Korea’s home gaming, entertainment and shopping platforms, where they act just like real-life celebrities.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) influencer Rozy, for example, has more than 100 real-life sponsorships to his credit. And conglomerate Lotte’s home shopping network has Lucy, who boasts over 60,000 Instagram followers.
Life after death?
In the future, deceased humans may also come back to life in the metaverse.
“As technology advances, even everyone who has died – mothers, fathers, family members – can be virtually restored,” says Stanley Kim, CEO of Vive Studios. Vive made headlines last year when the company created an avatar to help a grieving mother mourn the death of her daughter.
“In the next three to five years, virtual humans will be created seamlessly with 3D and animated by artificial intelligence. You can even replicate their voice if you have 8 hours of recording,” he says.
But with every company taking action, from Meta – formerly known as Facebook – to Microsoft, investing in the metaverse, will we end up with multiple different and disconnected metaverses?
“It’s kind of like when we first got the Internet,” says Kim of Vive. “There were so many companies, but eventually some of them won the competition to dominate the industry. This is what will happen with the metaverse.”
With so many private companies at the forefront, the Seoul government in South Korea has become the first major global city to go into action, investing $ 35 million in its metaverse.
“Instead of having to come here to City Hall, an AI public officer will help residents in the metaverse with questions and solve real-world problems,” ChangKeun Lee of the Seoul Metropolitan Government told BBC.
“We can organize festivals without worrying about Covid-19. People can even travel into space or go back in history to the Chosun dynasty.”
For most people, this whole virtual life still seems a bit far-fetched. The metaverse has only recently become a hot topic, and as with any new technology, scrutiny and regulations are required to follow as privacy risks and concerns grow.
And there are ethical issues to consider. For example, what if an avatar commits a crime – such as stealing virtual assets – in the metaverse?
“I think what is really important is that regulators use it a lot more, and therefore are able to understand what the real pros and cons of it are. And have a lot of dialogue with operators like us who also manage platforms like users, “says Lee of Zepeto.
For now, however, one thing is clear: the metaverse is still taking shape in pieces, but the race to populate it and create the most precious resources it will contain within it has begun.