China’s augmented and virtual reality advantage

With the release of ARKit and ARCore, every developer, early adopting consumer, and virtual reality production agency is atwitter at the prospect of encountering augmented reality experiences in day-to-day digital life. The hype around AR today is perhaps even more feverish than that which surrounded virtual reality at the beginning of 2016, the fabled “year of VR.”

Despite countless gaming, communication, education, marketing, and healthcare applications for both technologies, though, the year of VR didn’t usher in far-reaching mainstream adoption, and popular AR apps have yet to regularly push the technology beyond facial filters and Pokemon Go-style amusements. We know that augmented and virtual reality have the potential to alter every part of our lives, but when will it happen? How can we expedite the emergence of these revolutionary technologies?

The answer might be found in China, where augmented and virtual reality are unmitigated successes –ninety-five per cent of Chinese respondents to a recent Worldpay survey reported using AR or VR technology in the past three months. Several factors have contributed to VR and AR’s consumer viability in China, including lower costs, wider accessibility (especially for VR), government buy-in, and fierce competition between the nation’s technology leaders.

Lower prices; wider adoption

In late 2016, Xiaomi, the world’s fifth-largest smartphone manufacturer, released the Mi VR headset. It is essentially the Chinese equivalent to the Samsung Gear: wireless, powered by a compatible smartphone, and extremely affordable.

“This device is particularly promising for the democratization of VR hardware,” wrote Medium’s Yoni Dayan in February. The Mi, he continued, goes “far beyond the brand’s first inroad at the market, the Xiaomi VR, a simili-Cardboard remarked for its quality and its great affordability.”

Devices like the Mi have made virtual reality accessible to just about everyone in China: virtual reality kiosks are a common sight at malls and the country is home to upwards of 3000 VR arcades.

Tech and marketing buy-in; competition between companies

The easy availability of VR headsets combined with China’s massive smartphone user base makes both virtual and augmented reality attractive marketing platforms, and the country’s technology leaders have seized the opportunity. Baidu, China’s largest search provider; Alibaba, an international e-commerce leader; and Tencent, whose WeChat messaging app boasts nearly a billion active users, have all invested in VR and AR projects that would make any North America virtual reality production agency proud.

These include:

  • A virtual reality shopping technology, launched by Alibaba on Single’s Day 2016, that allows users to browse, shop, and watch models on a catwalk in a virtual environment.
  • Alibaba also collaborated with Tencent on augmented reality games for China’s New Year holiday, wherein users would scan physical objects with their smartphones in order to access financial rewards. According to Venture Beat, Tencent reported attracting 200-million new WeChat users based on a similar campaign in 2014.
  • Baidu launched an AR platform called DuSee AR, which allows users to interact with 3D overlays and view various AR effects corresponding to different search keywords. It has also teamed with the provincial government of Hubei to create augmented reality wayfinding tools for the Shennongjia travel site.
  • Even KFC is in on the fun, teaming with Baidu and Yum! Brands to create an AR smartphone game for the fried chicken chain’s 300 Beijing locations.

Big government

Behind all this success lies China’s controlling, unitary government. The People’s Republic has pushed for the digitalization of traditional businesses and rapid adoption of new technologies through its “Internet Plus” initiative, which now includes virtual and augmented reality. Indeed, President Xi Jinping stated in his address at the 2016 B20 Summit that “the combination of the virtual economy and the real economy will bring revolutionary changes to our way of work and way of life.”

For all its many faults, the Chinese government’s seemingly contradictory embrace of state control and inter-company competition has made the country a global leader in augmented and virtual reality technology. Every savvy virtual reality production agency should take note.