A thousand people have a thousand different ideas about the metavers. But most technologists agree that the Metaverse is the next chapter of the Internet. However, such consensus ceases, as there are many different ways to think about these “chapters”.
One camp focuses on the method of interactions. The first chapter is the Internet of reading text and viewing images. The second chapter is the mobile Internet of consuming videos and using various applications. Chapter three is the Metaverse, a real-time, three-dimensional, fully immersive Internet experience.
Another camp revolves around the idea of value sharing and relies on blockchain technology. Chapters one and two are both centralized internet of informationwhile chapter three, the so-called Web 3.0, the decentralized valuable internet†
The first chapter is about read-only web portals plus personal and therefore semi-centralized websites. The second chapter is all about reading and writing (think blogging and social media), and mostly centralized by major technology platforms. Web 3.0 is read, written and clean, where data belongs to users, facilitated by the magic of blockchain.
For the Chinese search engine giant Baidu Inc. all these different ideas are welcome and accepted. Unlike other tech leaders like Meta and ByteDance, who push for their own vision of the metaverse, which I discussed earlier, Baidu is agnostic about technology.
“We can provide technology capabilities in the API (Application Programming Interface) and SDK (Software Development Kit) necessary to create a dynamic metaverse so that everyone can move forward and not have to waste energy doing these basic tasks, Ma Jie, vice president of Baidu who also leads the company’s XiRang metaverse project, told me in a recent interview. “Our attitude is very open.”
Ma clarified a fundamental confusion about Baidu’s XiRang project. Last December, the Beijing-based company held its AI developer conference in a futuristic virtual world created by Baidu called Creator City on the XiRang platform.
Many media outlets equated Creator City with XiRang, which was incorrectly described as a mobile app. XiRang is basically an invisible network of technological capabilities that Baidu is developing to support the development of the metaverse. Creator City is just a showcase that Baidu used to build the XiRang platform to demonstrate what XiRang is capable of.
Think of XiRang as a SaaS (Software as a Service) provider, but for the metaverse. Developers and content creators can license or purchase these capabilities to help their metaverse projects, whether it’s a metaverse game company looking to create a new metaverse game or a metaverse social networking app hoping to develop its product.
XiRang for the metaverse is like Baidu Brain for artificial intelligence. Baidu Brain, the company’s open AI platform, provides hundreds of basic AI capabilities and hundreds of thousands of models for developers. XiRang likewise aims to be the catalyst for metaverse builders.
How does Baidu plan to monetize this rather laid-back approach? The company is actually doing the hard and perhaps underrated work. In addition, the SaaS journey in the Chinese technology market is notoriously difficult for some idiosyncratic reasons.
Ma’s answer is that reasonable profits are enough. After all, many of the technical challenges of the metaverse, such as display lag, cloud rendering, VR headset issues such as weight and vertigo, limitations on the number of avatars hosted in a virtual environment, and many others still require a lot of time to solve. †
Being early, comprehensive (in technological capabilities), and being patient could help Baidu. Not being greedy is another advantage. But whether Baidu’s metaverse strategy will eventually work is anyone’s guess. The Chinese search engine is unique in its metaverse strategy to say the least.
Below is an edited Q&A from our conversation.
Nina Xiang: How did Baidu formulate its metaverse strategy?
My Jie: Baidu’s VR team has been working on VR since 2016. At the start of the Covid pandemic, we thought it would be beneficial to leverage our VR technology to potentially facilitate large-scale virtual events. We started the XiRang project in 2020, when it wasn’t called the metaverse yet.
Personally, I think the metaverse could be a promising Web 3.0 candidate. It doesn’t matter what names we use to describe it. We can see the evolution of computer interactions, and there is clearly great opportunity in the next innovation of user interaction and immersive experiences.
What is XiRang trying to do?
It is the infrastructure of the metaverse. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to build a website, you had to learn to buy servers, configure things like software stacks, and so on. It can take months for these elements to be ready.
But now there are many ready-made services, content and templates to create a website very quickly. XiRang wants to do the same: provide these essential technological capabilities to help others build the metaverse.
You mean like what Roblox does?
Not exactly. We want to be like Amazon Web Services (AWS) for the metaverse. It is closer to the infrastructure layer of the current IT ecosystem.
XiRang is an invisible platform. Creator City, a virtual world where we held our Developer Conference last year, is really just a showcase of XiRang’s capabilities.
We wanted to show developers that they can use XiRang’s tools, software and other features to create their own virtual worlds. Our capabilities include avatar, gestures and interactions, natural languages, multimedia display and much more. We will develop other capabilities, such as cloud rendering, to move the industry forward.
So it’s similar to what Meta does? Meta does a lot of those things too.
Our positioning could be a little closer to the infrastructure layer. For example, Meta builds suites of Horizon products for various purposes. But for us, one Creator City is enough. We want other partners to come and build their own metaverses to enrich this ecosystem. After all, building virtual worlds is not our core competence.
If XiRang wants to be the AWS for the metaverse, does that mean partners using XiRang’s capabilities should use Baidu Cloud?
We have an open attitude. XiRang is the catalyst for the metaverse and we will not ask people to link to Baidu Cloud. But we will provide all these other types of infrastructure capabilities and services, from the cloud to our AI capabilities. We also want to help our partners achieve interoperability and interconnection.
So it won’t be a centralized platform like Facebook?
So how do you plan to make money?
It’s good for us to make reasonable profit in one place. A business model in the age of the internet is to support small and medium developers and then hope to have a piece of the pie when they grow up and start making money. But for larger companies with more capabilities, the business model may be more attractive.
We can grant licensing rights, technology collaboration or make joint investments to get a reasonable return. We can use different methods and be flexible. But it may be too early to consider that this earlier model now supports small and medium developers.
Sound like a SaaS business model?
Yes, but it is not purely a Saas company. SaaS is a lightweight business model. But if someone wants a custom configuration so that they have more control, we are happy to provide that more comprehensive solution.
It’s been a while since XiRang’s Creator City caught the eye last year. Have there been any recent platform updates?
Last December, at our developer conference in Creator City, 100,000 people attended the meeting at the same time.
Actually, I want to clarify this point. Most virtual worlds in the United States can only host less than 100 avatars in a single virtual environment. That’s a huge difference of 100,000 people. It is my understanding that many of those 100,000 people sitting in the conference center in Creator City were unable to interact with the people around them.
Yes, what we meant was that we could host 100,000 people on a set of servers. You might think that all those 100,000 people in the context of the games were on the same server.
When people play games these days, they often have to choose a server. People on different servers couldn’t communicate with each other. What we did was put those 100,000 people on the same server (even though they still need to be hosted on a set of servers) so they could all communicate with each other. We have designed our own framework for this.
What impact will China’s privacy and data security laws, as well as stricter regulation, have on the metaverse?
Here too we bring value. We will eventually become an international operation and we have to do the data compliance in different jurisdictions. Despite the differences in laws and regulations in different countries, there are also similarities.
As a technology provider, we can also help you with this compliance work. This type of work can be a burden for many content creators. But we can learn and expand our expertise in this area as we expand to different countries.
Can you share something about overseas expansion?
We recently co-founded a company with Meta Media to build a virtual city called YuanBang using our XiRang platform. Blue Focus, which builds its virtual universe based on XiRang, is also expanding abroad. We are also discussing this with them.
We also spoke with tourism and economic development agencies in several countries to see if we can bring some of their sights and culture to Chinese consumers through the metaverse.