SEOUL, May 22 (Yonhap) — As the pandemic fuels demand for online activities, South Korean tech companies are bolstering efforts to develop “metaverse” platforms that allow users to shift their physical experiences to a virtual space.

Metaverse refers to a virtual space, often incorporating augmented reality (AR) technology, in which users interact with others through digital versions of themselves. The platforms can be found in the form of online games or social networking services.

SK Telecom Co., the largest mobile carrier, partnered with K-pop girl group STAYC to produce digital versions of its members on its Jump AR mobile app, allowing users to take photos or videos next to the members as if they were physically there.

An SK Telecom Co. Jump AR app user takes a photo with a digital version of a member of K-pop band STAYC in this photo provided by the company on May 19, 2021. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The mobile carrier said the move is part of its K-pop metaverse project, which aims to allow fans to interact with K-pop groups using the latest AR technology.

The telecom operator has recently taken steps to create alternate digital realities, holding a welcoming ceremony for new students at Soon Chun Hyang University using digital avatars on its VR platform in March.

Telecom operators have been at the forefront of developing the technology as they see the data-intensive platforms as killer content for their high-speed 5G networks.

While South Korea commercialized 5G in April 2019, user migration from previous generation networks has been sluggish, with 5G users accounting for around 20 percent of the country’s total mobile subscriptions in March.

Other South Korean tech companies have also built up metaverse platforms, betting on creating an alternate digital reality, and have racked up substantial followings from the younger, tech-savvy Generation Z.

Naver Z Corp., under the country’s top online portal operator Naver Corp., launched its mobile-based metaverse platform Zepeto in 2018, which has over 200 million users globally as of February.

Digital avatars of K-pop girl group BLACKPINK on Naver Z Corp.'s metaverse platform Zepeto are shown in this image provided by the company. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Zepeto allows users to create digital avatars based on their photos and to interact with others in a virtual world.

The platform has enjoyed popularity among teenagers globally, with 80 percent of its users age 10 to 19, while 90 percent of its users are from outside South Korea.

Zepeto has quickly expanded with its own virtual economy, where users can create their own digital items that can be sold online. The platform has even partnered with Gucci to offer the luxury brand’s products within the virtual universe.

The company has also collaborated with K-pop girl group BLACKPINK, allowing users to meet digital avatars of the group on the platform.

“Naver’s Zepeto has been met with explosive popularity in early stages and is expected to grow into a next-generation platform,” Kiwoom Securities analyst Kim Hak-joon said. “It has seen accelerating growth through multiple partnerships.”

Naver Z has drawn investment from major K-pop agencies, including 5 billion won (US$4.4 million) from JYP Entertainment in November last year.

The broader tech industry in the country has also joined forces to develop metaverse projects, launching an alliance made up of 17 companies, including SK Telecom as well as auto giant Hyundai Motor Co. and eight industry groups.