Since 2018, ‘Virtual Helsinki’ has offered a virtual tourism platform that, as its uses have diversified, has shown more and more similarities to the metaverse as we currently understand it.
Seoul’s reputation as a pioneering smart city was solidified by recently announced plans to develop a metaverse platform through which to conduct education, tourism, and other public services. Metaverse hype bloomed in late 2021 with Facebook’s rebrand to Meta Platforms, and Seoul’s announcement capitalized on this.
What is the metaverse?
GlobalData defines the metaverse as a virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real time within simulated scenarios.
Additionally, an important aspect of the metaverse seems to be the variety of virtual experiences it can offer, from work to education to entertainment (see Seoul’s platform). Meta Platforms’ Founder’s Letter conceives of the metaverse as a digital landscape in which users can ‘get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create’. This emphasis on functional variety is arguably what distinguishes the complex virtual worlds that the term ‘metaverse’ is supposed to refer to from, for instance, a simple work meeting in virtual reality.
Is Virtual Helsinki a metaverse?
‘Virtual Helsinki’ is a photorealistic digital replica of the Finnish Capital. Developed by Zoan in 2015, it launched in late 2018 as an explorable digital setting for citizens and tourists, accessible online and via virtual reality (VR) headsets.
Between its 2018 launch and now, Virtual Helsinki has become comparable to a metaverse platform as it has offered a range of virtual experiences. Initially a virtual tourism platform, in 2020 it hosted Finland’s largest-ever online event—a virtual concert on May Day in Senate Square that was attended by 1.4 million viewers via both computers and VR headsets.
Almost 150,000 users attended as customizable avatars (similar to the metaverses of Meta and Microsoft). Moreover, Zoan is interested in further expanding the experiences offered by Virtual Helsinki, including the ability for users to shop in the virtual world and have purchases delivered to their physical homes.
Zoan’s Chief Operating Officer and Partner Lauran Olin argues that Virtual Helsinki can be considered a metaverse: ‘The idea behind it—creating an immersive and interactive digital space for future citizens and tourists—is the same’.
What does Virtual Helsinki tell us?
In summary, Virtual Helsinki meets the criteria of a metaverse. However, it has been overlooked because it did not brand itself a metaverse—as it was developed years before the term ‘metaverse’ had gone mainstream. As Ms. Olin puts it, ‘the word “metaverse” as we understand it today created the context for what we (Zoan) do’. Conversely, Seoul’s metaverse platform was announced during a period of metaverse hype, and as a result, it was incorrectly identified as the first instance of the metaverse being used as a smart city initiative.
This suggests a point of immaturity in how the metaverse is currently viewed. Certainly, the term ‘metaverse’ came of age in 2021; GlobalData’s social media analytics shows that metaverse-related posts in 2021 skyrocketed from 287 in January to 22,553 in December.
However, the virtual experiences that metaverse platforms are supposed to provide (virtual tourism, concerts, etc.) have existed for years. More importantly, as Virtual Helsinki demonstrates, these experiences coexisted on interactive virtual platforms before ‘metaverse’ became the buzzword it is today. Virtual Helsinki shows that, strictly speaking, 2021 was not the year the metaverse was born; it was simply the year it was officially branded as such. Furthermore, Virtual Helsinki’s lack of recognition suggests that we have not fully grasped this yet.