SOUTH KOREA 2022 CHAT WITH MARK BAXTER: METAVERSE & EMERGING TECH

Mark Baxter, Co-Founder and CTO at Digitalnauts, answers a few questions on the representation of the XR industry at Seoul Metaverse Expo 2022.

TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT HOW THE OPPORTUNITY FOR DIGITALNAUTS TO GO TO SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA THIS YEAR CAME ABOUT.

“We applied for GBIP (Global Business Innovation Programme), part of  Innovate UK. We were told this year was a particularly competitive one, especially because the last two years have had to put on pause for obvious reasons.

So, this was the first time they managed to get a cohort over to South Korea since the pandemic. So, we were really lucky to be selected, I believe only 15 businesses in total attended and they were meant to represent the best of what the UK immersive technologies have to offer.

It was really a trade mission to try to create opportunities between both the South Korean immersive technologies companies and the UK ones.”  

WHAT’S THE OVERALL IMPRESSION SEOUL THE CITY AND THE SEOUL METAVERSE EXPO LEFT YOU AS A GLOBAL EVENT?

“Let’s start with the Expo. The Expo was interesting, mostly Korean companies. There weren’t many foreign companies there. We had the opportunity to explore and have great conversations with businesses and organisations there. There’s certainly a lot of technology, especially hardware, in South Korea that is impressive, for example holographic display technology. There were a lot of transparent displays, which is kind of what you’d expect, right? It’s South Korea! They’ve got all the big companies there, like LG and Samsung. So that really blew my mind as to how far ahead they are when it comes to hardware technologies. And you can see that that it’s going to be trickling down into headsets and displays for augmented reality prototypes as well as glasses and headset prototypes. 

On the software side, however, a lot of it was avatars and NFTs which I am not personally too interested in. I get it, digital presence is very important, particularly when we’re talking about the metaverse. But the Expo itself mostly focused on companies showing their hardware, there wasn’t much in terms of innovation, unfortunately. Given the name of the expo, I was also expecting more discussions around the metaverse. This aspect in this sense was disappointing. Anyway, the tech displayed at the expo was phenomenal. Some of the holographic technology I had never seen before. So even just from that point of view, I was impressed.  

Apart from the conference, Seoul the city itself… I was blown away by it, the technology and infrastructure it has, which is decades ahead of what we’ve got. So much so that when I came home, I felt like we were living in the dark ages. It was a real eye opener. But again, from a software point of view, they seemed to be lacking in software development compared to the phenomenal creative development that they have demonstrated. From the creative economy side, the whole of Seoul is just brimming with creative production. There’s so much going on. It’s really interesting to see.”

WHAT ARE THEY DOING IN THE IMMERSIVE SPACE IN B2B?

There wasn’t a lot on display. Most of what we got to see was B2C and I think a lot has to do with culture. 90% of everyone in South Korea uses a mobile phone every day, all day. And culturally they seem to be so much more in touch with technology [compared to us]. They’ve got the best network infrastructure I’ve ever seen in my life, which is essential to build what they’re talking about in terms of metaverse solutions, although their focus is still B2C and not B2B, which is the world I come from.

The South Korean audience is ready for a B2C metaverse, there’s no hesitation there. They want a digital presence. They want to be able to promote themselves through their digital avatars and have a representation of the real-world self in the digital world. There wasn’t any hesitation towards it, showing so much more technology embrace.

So culturally, it seemed very different. The audience there is primed and ready with no hesitation for a fully digital transformation into digital presence, to be able to promote themselves online. 

DO YOU THINK THAT THE B2C FOCUS OF SOUTH KOREA IS SOMEHOW AFFECTING THEIR VIEW OF THE METAVERSE COMPARED TO THE DISCOURSE WE’RE SEEING AROUND HERE IN THE UK, OR EVEN THE US?

“Oh yeah, 100%. I’ve not had the chance to go to America yet, but Charles was recently at SXSW at the start of the year and his opinion was that it was a lot of discussions of the metaverse around NFTs and games.  

In South Korea, to my complete surprise, there wasn’t much gaming. I expected it to be big given the interest in E-Sports over there. The South Korean metaverse is more about the infrastructure that companies are creating to make it happen. Large telecom companies for example are asking themselves: “How can we provide the infrastructure for creative individuals to create their own metaverse solutions, not only individuals but smaller businesses as well?”. What is particularly interesting in South Korea is that all of this is led by the government.

So there are government initiatives and different governmental boards to deal with the future of their metaverse. Since it’s government-led, many questions that may come up with, for example, laws in the metaverse or ethics, healthcare, retail, networks for training and so on, are all concepts created in a pragmatic and holistic way at the government level.”  

“They also know that interoperability is key. They’re not jaded by the whole marketing metaverse term and are trying to create the infrastructure for a metaverse that truly allows you to “jump in between different worlds”, so that daily lives can be lead digitally if they wanted to. Everybody is supporting it; this is the drive forward they want. They have the infrastructure for 5G, and now they’re even looking at 6G infrastructure.  

It’s a totally different approach. It was a real eye-opener for me. When you look at Facebook or Meta, the big social media companies, we must ask ourselves do we really want them to be responsible for building the metaverse? So, the West seems to be leaving it all to the corporates and the big companies to figure out how to make the “metaverse”.

But there’s greed there. They want to corner off that bit in the market for themselves, they want to be the ones that are taking ownership of it and find the rules. Whereas in Asia, South Korea but also in China and Japan, the government is pushing it. In our case here, our government is detached from technology, they’re so behind. “ 

WE’VE TALKED BEFORE ABOUT THE WORD “METAVERSE” AND HOW PROBLEMATIC IT IS TO SOME EXTENT. HAS SOUTH KOREA CHANGED YOUR PERSPECTIVE?

“Yeah, yeah 100%. Before South Korea, as you know, we were against how the word “metaverse” was used, as a buzzword for business. Now, I understand where it’s coming from, especially since, as I was saying, the concept of metaverse in South Korea is coming from the government and being created with a realistic and holistic approach. 

My problem with the metaverse here is that they’re leaving a huge piece of it, key areas like world building, down to individuals or businesses. Ever since we started our company in 2016, we always preached about openness, interoperability and democratisation across technologies and the government in South Korea is also looking into integrating these aspects into their metaverse, which ultimately shows a completely different perspective to the “metaverse” we hear about over here.  

Another big problem is governance and policies in the metaverse. How does that work? I know the whole idea of the metaverse is that it’s like the internet, open and uncontrolled… But you need laws, rules, right? Even simple law in terms of what you can or can’t do in the metaverse. Or another one, what about laws of physics? Can you fly around worlds? What about ethics, can you shoot someone in the metaverse, what happens then? If the metaverse is exactly like the real world, can simple things like graffiti exist, is that allowed in the digital city?” 

ANY ADVICE FOR SOMEONE GOING TO SOUTH KOREA FOR THE FIRST TIME, MAYBE AS A CO-FOUNDER AS YOURSELF OR AS A REPRESENTATIVE FROM ABROAD?

Lots and lots of coffee. I actually gave up coffee before the trip and I started back out once again in South Korea. Another thing is that in South Korea they have a saying “pali-pali” which means “quick, quick” or “fast, fast” and that’s the idea that whatever you need you should get it fast. So you want to see a doctor, for example, you shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes. And the same goes with speaking to people and making connections, everything should happen fast. Your business meetings should be fast and quick, that’s just how they do business, they don’t mess about. You have a chat, they send you an email on the day to get the work started, if they want to work with you, which is really exciting but that also means you might feel the pressure of jumping into decisions fast, which is something to be careful about.”

“Also, we got very lucky with Innovate UK and GBIP offering us translators and presentations translations, because that is definitely something you need in South Korea. It makes connections easier, since the language barrier is minimised. Very interesting to see as well that business cards, as in physical business cards, were popular and encouraged to do business in South Korea. I’d say here because of environmental worries, most professionals would opt for a digital card or maybe a quick QR code. Speaking of QR codes, massive in South Korea! They were everywhere and they also made a big difference when it came to showing off your website quickly to people during the event.” 

Any final shoutouts or thank yous?

There are some people I would like to thank. Thank you to the whole team at GBIP, they were really phenomenal and managed the whole trip and schedule of us 15 excited school kids going to South Korea for the first time who haven’t been out in two years. I learned so much from them, particularly about the creative industries as well. You know, I’m mostly a technology person, so I don’t have the most creative mind in the world that you know. I think in zeros and ones, but these guys think in colours. 

I learned a lot about production and made some really great friends and connections and without the people there this experience wouldn’t have been the same. Definitely much more stressful. So very big thanks to everybody who was there.”  

CHECK OUT THE SOUTH KOREA 2022 OFFICIAL DIGI VLOG.