The Chinese metaverse is no fun. Under the strict supervision of government officials, the virtual world is relentlessly focused on industry and healthcare.
In fact, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has even gone as far as to issue a state-backed definition of the metaverse. The CCP says the metaverse has three component technologies or pillars. They are digital twins (replications of real-world locations), mixed reality, and blockchain. Gaming doesn’t even feature.
All work, no play
The Chinese metaverse will need to contend with some major challenges. In China, blockchain is heavily regulated and cryptocurrencies are outright banned.
Western firms such as Decentraland, Sandbox and the upcoming SHIB the metaverse are all powered by blockchain and cryptocurrency. China will not be able to exploit similar models. Their metaverse will therefore need to cleave virtual spaces from digital assets.
Zhengyuan Bo, a partner at the research firm Plenum, outlined how a Chinese metaverse would differ from Western models.
“The key difference [in the metaverse] between China and the rest of the world is it’d be heavily regulated in a centralized manner,” Bo told Wired on Tuesday.
“And there’s only limited space for growth without [digital assets] for monetization.”
Brady Wang, of the market research firm Counterpoint, corroborates this view. The associate director says the metaverse in China is “very much a government-led concept.”
The Chinese government is openly hostile to video games. This informs its policy on the proper uses of the metaverse.
In August 2021 the CCP brought in rules that limited gaming to one hour on Fridays, weekends, and holidays. State media went as far as to brand online games as “spiritual opium,” in a clear reference not only to addiction but to colonialism in China and its “century of humiliation.”
Finding other uses
Gaming applications may be off-limits in China, but other uses for the metaverse are still very much alive.
HiAR is one of the leading Chinese corporations in the space. In 2017, HiAR used augmented reality to help Chinese officials identify hotspots of dengue fever within Guangzhou.
Dengue fever is a disease spread in the blood by mosquitos. HiAR employed drones to identify bodies of still water that might provide breeding grounds for the little blood-suckers. It then added that data to a graphical interface that directed officials to investigate.
“At the current stage, everyone emphasizes industrial applications from education, medical, travel, and industrial development,” says Siri Chen, HiAR’s marketing director.
The corporation is working on other applications of its technology too. For example, HiAR is using VR to help train factory workers to accomplish tasks such as repairs.
HiAR finds itself in good company. The Chinese VR industry has gone through a significant boom-and-bust cycle, with the chaff now eliminated. Those companies remaining are well-placed to exploit opportunities that exist in the Chinese market, providing they do so along officially sanctioned lines.