BEIJING, Jan 26 (Reuters) – How will China’s metaverse evolve? Look to the letter “c”. Clean, censored, compliant and crypto-less is the view from experts.
The descriptions point to the long shadow thrown by Chinese authorities who have already intimated they will have a heavy regulatory hand in how it will develop – a shadow some China metaverse advocates fear will stunt its growth.
From Microsoft’s (MSFT.O) $69 billion plan to buy Activision (ATVI.O) to Facebook changing its name to Meta Platforms Inc (FB.O), much of the tech world is leaping to build what many expect will be the next generation of the internet: immersive virtual worlds that replicate many aspects of real life.
Experts say China’s metaverse efforts lag countries such as the United States 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 VR headsets has meant China has yet to see a VR platform or metaverse gain significant popularity.
But interest has begun to surge. In the past year, more than 1,000 companies including heavyweights such as Alibaba Group Holding (9988.HK), and Tencent Holdings Ltd (0700.HK) have applied for around 10,000 metaverse-related trademarks, according to business tracking firm Tianyancha.
Baidu (9888.HK), 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, 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.
“Investors and venture capital managers who hadn’t talked to me in years were suddenly messaging – asking if I want to go for a meal and talk. They all want to talk metaverse,” said Beijing-based Pan Bohang whose startup plans to launch a VR social gaming platform.
A REGULATED REALM
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 the state-backed China Mobile Communications Association’s metaverse industry committee which was formed in October.
But China’s authoritarian approach is at odds with how the metaverse is developing in other parts of the world where users are attracted to new ways of expressing themselves, 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 on VRChat right now…it is crazy progressive and liberal,” he said, referring to a popular San Francisco-based VR platform.
“The idea of the metaverse is that one moves between virtual worlds…this goes immediately against the idea of one party, one voice, one vision.”
Experts also note that gaming – considered the gateway technology to the metaverse – is tightly regulated in China.
Games must be approved by the government and while battle games are allowed, strong violent content such as the depiction of blood and dead bodies is banned, as is anything that can be construed as obscene. As part of their recent regulatory crackdown, authorities have also sought to rein in gaming by minors as well as excessive adulation of celebrities and money.
Gaming giants such as Tencent and NetEase Inc (9999.HK), have been quick to state publicly that they will comply with any rules while developing metaverse offerings.
THE GOVERNMENT’S REACH
The long arm of the government looks set to be duly felt in other ways too. An influential app, Xuexi Qiangguo, which is required reading for many Communist Party cadres, published an article in November that said the metaverse should be used to improve the quality of mandatory ideological education classes for school children.
At a January meeting of Beijing’s municipal political advisory body which discussed the metaverse’s development, proposals included a registration system for metaverse communities aimed at preventing them from influencing wider public opinion and causing economic or financial shocks, according to a state media report.
And while crypto currencies have become a defining feature of many Western metaverse worlds – they are notably absent in China’s metaverse as they have been banned by Beijing. Instead, the manifold forms of Chinese digital payment already in use, like the central government’s digital yuan, will likely take their place.
Despite the many probable restrictions, some entrepreneurs say China’s metaverse will flourish simply because of Chinese consumers’ willingness to try new forms of online entertainment.
Nikk Mitchell, whose company is in talks about metaverse projects based on Chinese stories that will play up elements such as Chinese calligraphy and traditional costumes, is one such believer, noting progress in domestic VR glasses and content.
When Chinese consumers are ready to give this metaverse-related tech another shot, “then there will be mass adoption at a level that I don’t think will happen in the West nearly as quick,” he said.
Africa is taking a dive into the “Metaverse”
As it turns out, the next “big thing” after the internet is projected to be the “Metaverse”, and with the rapid penetration of AI, AR, and VR (Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality), sooner than expected, the Metaverse is set to change the way we socialize, work, and interact in a more virtual world.
Although it doesn’t exist yet, Facebook, one of the biggest tech companies interested in creating a Metaverse, described it as a set of virtual spaces where people can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical spaces as them. According to Facebook, you’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more. The tech giant also announced that it’s creating 10,000 new jobs across the European Union to help make the building of the Metaverse a reality.
Facebook announced in September: “We are at the start of a journey to help build the next computing platform. Working with others, we’re developing what is often referred to as the metaverse — a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality. At its heart is the idea that by creating a greater sense of “virtual presence”, interacting online can become much closer to the experience of interacting in person. The metaverse has the potential to help unlock access to new creative, social and economic opportunities.”
However, disclosing Africa’s inclusion in the creation of the Metaverse, Facebook stated: “The metaverse won’t be built overnight by a single company. We’ll collaborate with policymakers, experts and industry partners to bring this to life.We’re announcing a $50 million investment in global research and program partners to ensure these products are developed responsibly. We’re working with the Organization of American States on job training and skills development for students, creators and small business owners. Across Africa, we’re supporting Africa No Filter, Electric South and Imisi3D to support creators who have been pushing the boundaries of digital storytelling using immersive technology through “Amplifying African Voices.” With Women In Immersive Tech, we are supporting women and underrepresented groups driving Europe’s virtual, augmented and mixed reality sectors. As a part of this effort, we are also facilitating independent external research with institutions across the globe.”
Speaking on Africa’s participation in the tech innovation, International Consultant in Strategy & Development and Co-founder of Afric’Up and Africa in Colors, Mohamed Zoghlami in an interview shared by Africa News Agency said: “In Africa, we no longer want to be only consumers, we want to be actors, to influence, to embrace technology, and to think about our future as well as that of the entire humanity. The COVID crisis, which revealed the innovations and skills of local start-ups, has brought about many advances in our African latitudes and demonstrated a real creative buzz, in key sectors related to AI, IoT, blockchain and or even cryptocurrencies.”
Zoghlami stated further: “When we know that in Africa, mobile plays a crucial role in the digital revolution, we can think that the “born-digital” of the continent will quickly meet the challenge of the Metaverse, by developing applications and services around a mobile digital space that resembles them. This is how we will be able to build our own virtual storytelling, based on our African traditions and values such as Ubuntu; this feeling of belonging and uniqueness of the human and African community leading to cooperation and sharing.”
Furthermore, it is crucial to ensure that Africa’s primary resource, its youth, can adapt effectively as the fourth industrial revolution, because soon the Metaverse will reshape the skills of the future. Since age tends to be an important barometer of digital savvy, technology adoption skyrockets as these born-digital come of age. When we know that in Africa, mobile plays a crucial role in the digital revolution, we can think that the “born-digital” of the continent will quickly meet the challenge of the Metaverse, by developing applications and services around a mobile digital space that resembles them.
Research company, CB Insights revealed that brands and retailers are beginning to explore ways to foster new forms of customer engagement in the metaverse to sell more products, fintechs are jumping on the opportunity to capitalize on new financial needs, while a slew of startups are creating new virtual products entirely, from avatars to crypto collectibles. Besides Facebook, some of the other companies building the foundational blocks to the metaverse include Microsoft, Niantic, Roblox Corporation, Epic Games, and Magic Leap.
So what’s the business case for the metaverse?
Sponsorship of events and concerts: Fortnite recently hosted a huge performance by rap artist Travis Scott. Massive Attack headlined a music festival hosted by Minecraft. As more events and concerts are hosted in the metaverse, companies will have a plethora of opportunities for potentially profitable sponsorships.
Digital-only products: There are huge opportunities to develop products in the digital world. Pretty much anything people have in the real world might be something they want to buy for the metaverse, from cool clothes and outfits to homes, cars, and other things we can’t even imagine right now.
Remote work: Work will also increasingly move into the metaverse, from co-working spaces to meetings, to simulations and training. Facebook Horizon’s Workrooms is attempting to take on Zoom and give workers new ways to collaborate online in virtual reality spaces.
Games: Games have long since been the backbone of plans for the metaverse. Check out some of the best VR games on the market right now to look for inspiration for your company.
Process manufacturing: Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, is using metaverse applications to dramatically improve its operations. They used Azure Digital Twins to create a complete digital model of their breweries and supply chain that syncs up in real-time with the physical environment. The model enables brewmasters to adjust the brewing process and conduct quality control. Click here to see a useful video that illustrates how the digital twin process works.
What’s Next for the Metaverse
Vlad Panchenko, Founder and CEO of DMarket, a marketplace, and technology for building virtual worlds, says the metaverse will grow to include multiple cross-chain possibilities as the virtual economy grows in importance.
“Many brands intuitively or on purpose are moving towards the metaverse which is creating a global economy on track to exceed the current one, many times over,” Panchenko says. “There will be no other option but to join it. Otherwise, you will not survive as a company.”
As spaces come together into a metaverse environment, it creates enormous opportunities for businesses to not only create awe-inspiring experiences for their customers but also improve their business process, so they maintain a competitive edge.