As curiosity heats up surrounding the metaverse – an all-encompassing and interactive digital world enabled by advanced internet technology – more and more attention is being drawn to China. Home to some of the world’s leading technology firms, the country initially lagged behind in this novel virtual realm, but has recently witnessed key developments within its borders that may play a major role in the metaverse’s future global layout.
Baidu Inc., the operator of China’s foremost search engine and producer of a wide range of consumer tech products, unveiled its own iteration of the metaverse late last year, called “Xirang.” Tencent, another giant in the industry and one of the world’s top gaming firms, revealed more details about its metaverse vision in recent months. And ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of global social media phenomenon TikTok, acquired leading virtual reality (VR) headset startup Pico in August of last year.
Given these advancements, Morgan Stanley estimated in January that China’s metaverse industry could eventually yield a market value of $8 billion.
“A concept that is now emerging as a household name, the metaverse permeates every aspect of our lives with unstoppable momentum,” said a representative for Newborn Town, Inc., a Beijing-based mobile internet technology firm, in comments to Pandaily.
Newborn Town develops social networking and gaming platforms, with an emphasis on global expansion through localizing its products and services. The firm carried out a public listing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in late 2019 and saw cumulative downloads of its social apps reach 344 million as of December 31, 2021. Average monthly active users of its social apps totaled 21.79 million that month.
Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, who announced last October that his company Facebook had been renamed Meta Platforms, Inc., offered his own interpretation of the concept during a podcast hosted by The Verge: “The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies – the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet.” Zuckerberg added that this new space is essentially “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content – you are in it.”
The company’s decision to rebrand helped kickstart an unprecedented wave of interest and investment in the metaverse, starting primarily with major western tech firms. But in China, where most of Meta’s products are unavailable, the future of this burgeoning new sector is somewhat foggier.
Newborn Town straddles this divide. Despite being founded and headquartered in China, users of its diverse line of social networking and gaming platforms are all in other countries. When asked about this paradox, a firm representative said that they “enjoy the industrial dividends of China’s internet, such as the technical talent; at the same time, the company has done a good job in coordinating between the headquarters and the front, exerting its advantage in global localization.”
The technological prowess of Newborn Town’s China-based developers has allowed it to generate a wide range of innovative digital products. Meta Town, for instance, represents the company’s own attempt to enter the metaverse field – billed as an immersive cyber world in which users can create avatars and interact in virtual cafes, cinemas and outdoor spaces, Newborn Town has begun integrating this world with its broader range of products.
A notable case involves one of the firm’s most successful apps called Yumy, a video-based dating platform. By stitching it together with Meta Town, the firm says it will “create a new generation of video-based social experiences.”
When asked if Beijing-based Newborn Town would eventually seek to provide services to users in mainland China, the firm replied: “Whether or not it will do so in the future depends on market conditions and the development of our business.”
While Newborn Town is focused on overseas operations, other major players in China’s technology industry have been making significant strides in expanding the domestic metaverse scene. Pandaily reported last month that the China National Intellectual Property Administration had received as many as 16,000 individual trademark applications related to the metaverse.
Regulators have been taking note. At China’s recent “two sessions,” a major annual event in the country’s legislative calendar, top officials discussed the current state of affairs and development prospects for the metaverse. Following the meetings, SCMP noted statements by influential attendees suggesting that the central government should lead in guiding the future layout and application of metaverse-related products and services.
Moreover, some experts have predicted that based on shifting regulatory posture in China towards the domestic tech industry, local metaverse spaces will be less likely to include components such as cryptocurrency and decentralization – increasingly considered the metaverse’s core selling points in global contexts.
For now, the metaverse remains a largely undeveloped concept. While the major players in this potentially disruptive new field are mostly western, led by Zuckerberg’s Meta, its rollout in the booming world of Chinese technology is worth watching.