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China's Metaverse Geared Towards Work and Health – Is This the Future?

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As Meta and other Western tech giants seek to create virtual worlds for consumers in the metaverse, China is taking a different approach. 

The Chinese government is backing technologies that it sees as strategic and setting rules to govern what can go on in cyberspace. 

Rather than creating a virtual world for socializing, China’s version of the metaverse is aimed at putting tech to work in supporting the economy.

One example of this is HiAR, an augmented reality company that helps local authorities in China identify mosquito breeding grounds via drone footage. 

HiAR was founded in 2012 before the term "metaverse" was popularized by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

In 2021, after Facebook rebranded to Meta in a high-level push toward the metaverse, Chinese startups and tech investors started following suit, trying to develop their own metaverse technologies or integrate mixed reality elements into consumer products.

The Chinese government is also taking a keen interest in the metaverse, backing emerging technologies it deems critical and putting regulatory frameworks in place. 

“The Metaverse is a vague concept and every [company] is interpreting it in its own way,” Brady Wang, an associate director at tech market research firm Counterpoint, told Wired in an interview

“In China, it’s very much a government-led concept.”

In December 2021, China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection defined the metaverse as consisting of three elements: digital twins, mixed reality, and the blockchain. 

However, the authorities effectively banned cryptocurrencies in September 2021, which has helped to decouple virtual spaces from digital assets.

While gaming, a key pillar of the metaverse in the West, has come under pressure from the Chinese government amid concerns over youth addiction, the government is willing to support elements that could benefit the economy. 

The 14th Five Year Plan, Beijing's economic strategy document from 2021 to 2025, includes digital twins as a priority. 

Additionally, an action plan published by five ministries, including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, aims to grow the virtual reality industry to $51 billion and identifies innovative areas such as near-eye display and rendering processing.

Notably, while the buzz in the private sector has moved on to generative AI. the government’s vision hasn’t changed.

“The government is rather focused on the long-term with policymaking,” Jingshu Chen, cofounder of VR company VeeR. 

“The recent AI hype hasn’t affected how different levels of government continue to follow through their metaverse policies.”

Likewise, Meta has recently reiterated its commitment to the metaverse, refuting claims that the tech giant has pivoted away from the virtual world in favor of AI.

“A narrative has developed that we’re somehow moving away from focusing on the metaverse vision, so I just want to say upfront that that’s not accurate," Zuckerberg said.

The statement comes as the company's metaverse department has lost nearly $4 billion this quarter and $13.7 billion in total last year, with expectations for increasing losses in 2023.

“Building the metaverse is a long-term project, but the rationale for it remains the same, and we remain committed to it,” Zuckerberg concluded.