The global tech competition between the U.S. and China has created its own Cold War-like dichotomy: The open, entrepreneurial model of the West pitted against China’s top-down state control.
What does that mean for the metaverse, a technology whose entire promise is based on its open and interconnected nature?
As American tech giants like Microsoft and Meta race to build out their virtual footprints, there’s a comparable race afoot by Chinese firms. Companies like TikTok creator ByteDance and the search giant Baidu have made big investments in both the hardware (think headsets, cameras) and software (games and live entertainment experiences) that will make the metaverse “go.”
If the metaverse takes shape as the interconnected virtual world its builders are envisioning, there are a few different ways that could happen. It could have discrete “spheres of influence,” like the real-life world of geopolitics, or, more likely, there could be a hard split — with the Chinese version behind the same “great firewall” that keeps its current digital infrastructure largely isolated from the rest of the world.
Either way, what would a “metaverse with Chinese characteristics” actually look like?
Hanyu Liu is an analyst for Daxue Consulting, a firm that’s taken a long, hard look at Chinese tech companies’ push into the metaverse, and the attendant state response. Having studied the country’s digital landscape, he sees its virtual dimension developing in a largely similar fashion to the Chinese state itself.
“Centralization is the way they’ll go,” Liu said. He cited the example of Baidu’s XiRang platform, a 3D environment that features the same level of virtual immersion as popular American platforms like Facebook Horizons, or games like Roblox or Minecraft — but, notably, offers none of their customizability.
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