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Seoul to ring in the new year inside the metaverse as COVID-19 enters 3rd year

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Seoul to ring in the new year inside the metaverse as COVID-19 enters 3rd year
Seoul will host a virtual version of its traditional New Year's Eve ceremony in the metaverse this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. Screenshot courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government

SEOUL, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- As the world continues to grapple with a COVID-19 pandemic now entering its third year, Seoul is preparing to welcome in 2022 with a virtual bell-ringing ceremony inside the metaverse.

Due to distancing limitations, only a handful of in-person attendees will be at the city's Bosingak Pavilion, where tens of thousands traditionally gather as a 20-ton bronze bell dating to the Joseon Dynasty is struck 33 times at the stroke of midnight.

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Instead, the South Korean capital will welcome revelers to its metaverse platform, where personal 3D avatars can mingle, watch comedy and music performances and even snap photos and pose for selfies in front of the virtual belfry.

"We tried to make it easier for citizens to welcome the new year in a new way using the metaverse in a situation where it is difficult to do outside activities due to the strengthening of social distancing during the year-end holidays," Kang Yo-sik, president of the city-affiliated tech firm Seoul Digital Foundation, said.

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The metaverse is a catch-all concept for an immersive, shared digital realm that users navigate as personalized avatars, often via virtual and augmented reality hardware such as headsets. For Friday's event, visitors will only need their smartphones to join the festivities.

Offline, just 14 citizens will be on hand to ring the bell at Bosingak Pavilion, including Squid Game actor Oh Young-soo, Olympic gold medal-winning archer An San, rapper Lee Young-ji and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. The celebration will also be livestreamed and broadcast on television.

"Although the ceremony will be held online for the second year in a row, I sincerely hope that the ringing of the bell will reach every one of our citizens with dreams and hope," Mayor Oh said in a statement.

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The New Year's Eve fest is not just a one-off tech showcase, however -- it marks the official launch of the ambitious Seoul Metaverse, a virtual world for government services, business, tourism and culture that is a global first for a major city.

According to a five-year roadmap laid out by Seoul in October, citizens will be able to visit virtual offices to lodge complaints or register for municipal services, while popular tourism locations and lost historic sites will be recreated in the metaverse. Other major events such as the Seoul Lantern Festival will be held in the virtual world starting in 2023.

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The $3.3 million project is scheduled to be completed by 2026 and may grow to incorporate AR and VR hardware, city officials said.

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The metaverse became a buzzword in 2021 with Facebook rebranding itself as Meta and several other companies announcing pivots of their own to a digital realm that remains more vision than reality. South Korea has looked to position itself as a leader in the emerging technology, with the administration of President Moon Jae-in highlighting the metaverse as one of the pillars of its $64 billion Digital New Deal program.

In May, the country's science ministry launched a public-private industry alliance to develop metaverse platforms that has since drawn hundreds of companies including tech giants Samsung and Hyundai Motors. The New Year's Eve ceremony on Friday will be hosted on ifland, a metaverse app developed by SK Telecom, the country's largest telecommunications firm.

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