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Mixed Realities in the Middle Kingdom

Observations on China’s VR market.

I had the unexpected honor of being interviewed by Eduardo Baptista for commentary related to his recent Technode piece on the Chinese mixed reality startup Seengene, and the Chinese VR market in general. As is typical when contributing to such things, I answered a few questions in order to provide a range of remarks for the journalist to choose from. One of my comments made the cut, and I smiled when informed that Seengene unsurprisingly took issue with the observation.

In the interest of using the entire buffalo and expounding further on the Chinese VR market, I’ve provided my original answers to Eduardo’s questions in their entirety for your reading pleasure...

Eduardo: Many Chinese VR CEOs claim that the Chinese VR market is leading the American one. Do you think this is true? If so, in what aspects? Investment, VR headsets, market demand? If not, why? 

Kevin: The Chinese VR market certainly leads the American market in terms of activity, but not really in terms of quality or productivity.  China is generally less of an innovator than it is a fast-follower: when technological advances are made in the West, you can be sure that China will shortly come out with something faster/cheaper/similar (if not necessarily better). Numerically and perhaps even percentage-wise, I believe more Chinese consumers have tried VR in casual settings such as gaming arcades and shopping malls than have American consumers. But I also believe that Chinese consumer adoption of VR technology (from all-in-one headsets to high-end HMDs) may be lower than in the USA, percentage-wise. I could be wrong, but who really knows? VR hardware companies worldwide are notoriously opaque regarding how much business they are actually doing.

Eduardo: What do you think is unique about the Chinese VR market? For example, one CEO pointed out the government’s involvement in tech is something not found in the US.

Kevin: China is famous for its “Five Year Plans,” which set out the CPCC’s broad vision that everyone downstream scrambles to interpret and satisfy. The Chinese central government is indeed the prime driver of China’s tech initiatives, of which VR and AI are the latest subjects. In the West, government involvement is generally considered a curse rather than a blessing, given that government officials are even more ignorant than the technorati regarding the ramifications of the work at hand. In China, nothing happens without government approval (or without the absence of government disapproval). Government involvement and government control are closely related. Despite China’s aspirations to a market-driven economy, it’s important to remember that many Chinese corporations are state-owned, and all Chinese corporations are state-controlled. On the one hand, this means that things can happen very quickly (for better and for worse). On the other hand, this means that innovation and true progress can be stifled - not only through restrictions, but also through pre-emptive self-regulation.

Eduardo: What do you think are some of the challenges the Chinese VR market is facing in 2019?

Kevin: Like every other market in the world, the Chinese VR market faces a mass-market consumer adoption challenge. Like certain markets in the world, the Chinese VR market faces a censorship challenge.

Eduardo: What is the next “frontier” for VR? One Chinese CEO said that it was full-body VR, but that is supposedly ten years away.

Kevin: All questions are context-dependent, but this one more so. From a technological standpoint, full-body VR could indeed be considered the next frontier. From a business standpoint, simply getting folks to consume VR content with the same casual appetite that they give to 2D video content could be regarded as the next frontier. Consider this: people consume video on their TVs, on their PCs, on their phones, on public displays, etc. When will people consume VR content with the same ubiquity? High-end HMDs like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift aside, how many people even bother to watch VR on their phones? Achieving that tipping point is the true frontier.

Eduardo: A lot of VR companies are looking to use their technology for more practical applications, like long-range surgery, safety training in companies, education in general. Do you think China’s VR market will be increasingly focused on solving problems for different industries or will entertainment be the man driver?

Kevin: As much as I’d love to think that entertainment will drive VR in China and around the world, I understand what wags the dog. In HBO’s Westworld series, a board member remarks that the point of the technology is not world-building and storytelling, but something bigger. I believe that this can be said of China’s support for VR, AI and related technologies. China’s Ministry of Industry has set out a platform of goals for VR, guided (as always) by “Xi Jinping’s new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Two things are notable about this announcement. The first is that it comes from the Ministry of Industry (as opposed, say, to the Ministry of Culture). The second is the sober fact that VR constitutes the ultimate surveillance state - right down to the tracking of your twitching eyeballs. What government on earth wouldn’t be interested in that?

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at www.kevingeiger.com and he can be reached at holler@kevingeiger.com.

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