Considering so many electronic companies (Samsung and LG I’m talking about you) are based out of South Korea I was expecting that Seoul (the capital city) would be some kind of sci-fi like cityscape, with towering buildings, holograms and jetpacks available for all (OK, maybe not the jetpacks). Instead I found a city- a country, really- full of eccentricities and contradictions with higgledy piggledy street vendors lying side by side flashing billboards and skyscrapers; and ancient pagodas resting in their shadow!
South Korea does seem technologically advanced when compared to London and the USA, but the technological advances are subtle rather than in your face teleporting chutes and holographic manifestations (Yes, a little Futurama inspired here).
I’m going to share some of the ways South Korea impressed me techwise- and how it was more about a combination of all the little things than anything big that made it stand out as advanced.
Fingerprint scanning lockers at all stations
When you arrive in a big city the last thing you want to do is lug your luggage around- especially if you’re only staying for a night. South Korea offered banks of lockers at all the train stations I visited (from the capital Seoul to the cities of Daegu and Busan) where you could store your luggage for 24 hours for the approximate price of 80p. What took these lockers up a tech step was the fact that once you’d inserted your money you didn’t get a key or a code for the locker- you had to place your FINGER on their scanning device and it then ‘locked’ the locker.
To unlock you simply approached the machine and scanned your finger again, and CLICK, your possessions were now available. It meant you never had to worry about losing your key, and the only slight issue I had was that the English instructions were a little hard to follow, so some giggling schoolgirls had to help me unlock it.
Number pad keys rather than house keys
Whilst in South Korea I stayed at many places, from nefarious love motels (more on this in another travel post) and not once did I ever use a key. Whilst this makes sense for the hotels ( I had electronic swipe cards) when I stayed in personal apartments I was amused by the fact that the door to the building- AND the door to the apartment was opened by a digital keypad lock. As long as you memorized the two codes you could get in and out the building with no trouble- unless you entered it wrong three times and then had to wait a period of time for it to reset. The apartments I stayed in were atypical South Korean accommodation for people who LIVE there, and my friend who has lived in Korea as a teacher for 3 years assures me this is standard in most homes. FYI- this was a small town named Gumi- so I can only imagine that larger cities like Seoul and Daegu initiated this trend.
As a regular Gizmodo reader I really should have expected electronic toilets but it still came as shock to me that these were installed in the majority of places I visited. There seemed to be a hierarchy that the more expensive the place, the more buttons on the toilet seat. For those unclear what I’m talking about, an electronic toilet comes with a large keypad next to it that offers a variety of modes. These range from seat warming, to fragrance squirting, to jets of water spouting at you and a fan dryer. I couldn’t actually understand the Korean symbols on the pad, but most of the buttons actions were self explanatory enough.
Escalators with motion sensors (and electronic doors that need to be touched open)
South Korea really surprised me in terms of its energy efficiency. The majority of escalators I went on all looked broken till a motion sensor detected I was nearby and started moving it. This might not be groundbreaking tech, but it’s another indication of how seamlessly electronics have been fitted into daily Korean lifestyle, and how they conserve energy at the same time. This was also noticeable in respect to electronic doors- I’m used to them sliding open when I approach, but most Korean stores involved you pressing a pad to make the door open for you. It might sound odd, but if you’re just pausing- not shopping- outside a store, the door gliding open is a waste of energy.
WiFi signal on the Metro (and free WiFi in general)
Londoners continually get promised that we’ll have WiFi on the tube, but apart from a few random trials that never go anywhere this remains a distant dream. In Seoul people would start revolting if the underground WiFi was turned off as you can literally get signal EVERYWHERE. Another great thing about the city is he abundance of free WiFi all around you, and if you ever lose reception you generally only need to walk a few minutes before it’s back again. There is actually a way I could have had free Wi-Fi in Korea even more regularly, as one of the issues is that some of the free WiFi networks need a password- which is written in Korean (doh!). I’ve since found this blog that lists them in English- this would have been really useful!
Tube Map with a Light for each stop
This is actually an incredibly simple and easy thing to do, but it makes it SO much easier when you’re foreign and confused. The Seoul Metro station features maps inside each carriage of where the various line goes (similar to the London Underground) but what it has that London doesn’t is a LIGHT for each stop, so you always know where you are. When you’re at a stop the light is GREEN and the next stop is glowing orange. This is incredibly useful as many of the subway stops sound NOTHING like they are written in English and this saved me from getting lost multiple times. They also have another cute thing- when waiting for a train in Seoul there is no ‘X train here in 4 minutes’ type board. Instead you get a visual depiction of a cartoon train with the stops featured as small baubles and you can see how many baubles your train is from where you are, as it moves along each one. This also means that there is space for a TV advertisement on the LCD screens you’re looking at, so you get some entertainment (and KPOP videos) to look at as well.
Photobooth machines with complex editors
When I was younger me and my friends would occasionally crowd into a photobooth together and make faces for some cutesy pictures.
In South Korea this is taken to a whole new level, with pop up photo booths incredibly common- on every other corner in busy areas- and these booths are EXTREME.
Each one can fit up to ten people in them, and the space is filled with giggling girls (and boys!) making faces, and playing dress up with the provided props (hats, bows etc). Once you’ve done this it’s not over as you now go into the EDITING booth. Yes, really.
A whole separate OTHER booth is dedicated to letting you edit the photos you’ve taken. This involves changing the background, adding decorations like words, bows, sparkles, and EDITING YOUR SKINTONE, changing your eye shape, implanting a NEW NOSE- it’s crazy. Each booth has two LCD screens and two touch sensitive pens to use and you get to use this for around 40 minutes, so the whole experience takes about an hour rather than the 3 minutes I’m used too. Once done, you go to another counter where you can choose if you want your photos glossy, stickers etc.. and then you’re done. I had to queue for about 20 minutes to do this- and this was on a Monday afternoon!
[ The finished images!!]
As you can see there is far more to technology in South Korea and Seoul than you may have thought. I could add things like PC Bangs (24 hour internet cafes), the massage chair booths on trains and the neon lights that glow all the time to the list, but they are things you expect from South Korea, whilst everything else here is something that was unexpected and subtle at the same time.