Clean, censored, compliant and crypto-less is the experts’ vision of the Chinese metaverse in the long shadow thrown by Chinese authorities, who have already intimated they will have a heavy regulatory hand in how it will develop.
It is a shadow some China metaverse advocates fear will stunt its growth.
From Microsoft’s $69 billion plan to buy Activision to Facebook changing its name to Meta, much of the tech world expects the next generation of the internet to be immersive virtual worlds that replicate many aspects of real life.
Experts say China’s metaverse efforts lag behind those of countries such as the US and South Korea, citing less investment by domestic tech giants.
Industry-leading products like Meta’s Oculus virtual reality (VR) headsets are banned in China and the slow development of attractive domestically made headsets has meant China has yet to see a VR platform or metaverse gain significant popularity.
But in the past year, more than 1,000 companies, including heavyweights such as Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings, have applied for around 10,000 metaverse-related trademarks, according to business tracking firm Tianyancha.
Baidu Widely Panned
Baidu broke new ground in December with the launch of “XiRang”, described as China’s first metaverse platform though it has been widely panned for not offering a high-level immersive experience. Baidu says its app is a work in progress.
Start-ups too are seeing more investment. In the three months to end-November, more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) was invested in metaverse-related ventures.
That is far more than the 2.1 billion yuan of investment that China’s VR and related industries attracted for all of 2020, according to Sino Global, a crypto venture capital firm focused on China.
Experts say the infancy of China’s metaverse allows Beijing plenty of room to co-opt its development, particularly since the current metaverse buzz has coincided with an unprecedented regulatory crackdown on tech and other industries.
“Traditional Chinese internet businesses developed first and were then regulated. Industries like the metaverse will be regulated as they are built,” said Du Zhengping, head of China Mobile Communications Association’s metaverse industry committee.
But China’s authoritarian approach is at odds with how the metaverse is developing in other parts of the world and it will stifle growth, says Eloi Gerard, a VR entrepreneur who worked in China for 10 years before recently moving to Los Angeles.
“The metaverse is already a place where you have religious groups, LGBT movements, gathering all around the world and using the virtual world to share ideas, this is what people are doing …it is crazy progressive and liberal,” he said.
- Reuters, with editing by George Russell