Baidu Extends Metaverse Push With Virtual Hosts

Despite the stringent restrictions from Beijing, Baidu is storming ahead with its metaversal ambitions. Today sees the launch of the annual flagship Baidu World 2022 Conference (July 21), where Baidu AI Cloud is set to launch a livestream platform featuring virtual hosts. These will support 24-hour, AI-driven livestreaming, starring hyper-realistic digital avatars each with a free choice of makeup, hair, clothing, and scene. 

Also set to be unveiled at the conference is the “mass production” of virtual beings, which is to celebrate the group’s recent breakthrough with its artificial intelligence algorithm. The news, announced via Weibo, means that on the platform “every human will be able to possess a virtual counterpart.” Science fiction or the mainland’s new reality? Here Jing Daily analyzes Baidu’s use of digital hosts to dominate China’s metaverse. 

Tech giant Baidu is set to reveal its latest project of “mass-produced” virtual beings at the 2022 Baidu World Conference. Photo: Baidu

Avatars are becoming one of China’s increasingly lucrative sectors in the metaverse 

Virtual humans are expected to reach an estimated value of $1.79 billion in the country (12 billion RMB) by the end of 2022, making them one of the key components of its metaverse strategy. Sarah Yam, co-founder of marketing agency Red Digital, believes that Baidu has recognized this business potential and is tapping it early.

“I think we’ll see Baidu leverage its virtual influencer technologies to promote and sell technological products,” she explains. “Virtual influencers provide scope for the company to make use of its years of experience cultivating artificial intelligence fundamentals, such as with its AI models.” Compared with using real livestreamers, the avatars Baidu is proposing are not limited to people, time, and space, which is expected to reduce its costs by more than 30 percent.

This sentiment is echoed by Jessie Fu, co-founder of digital-first fashion house altr_, who states that this move could be the next step in attracting a new demographic of netizens. “Baidu’s AI technology can massively enhance the productivity of livestreamers and the brands they support. Livestreaming already provides a more interactive experience with consumers, but the metaverse can unlock even more interactive, personalized, and real-time experiences with a new generation of users,” she adds. Audiences in Web3 aren’t willing to passively consume content; they are active participants, meaning comprehensive user experience is crucial for a firm’s long-term virtual survival. 

Can Baidu’s efforts satisfy the luxury market? 

But while hyper-realistic hosts are undoubtedly Baidu’s most ambitious venture yet, the organization has previously demonstrated that it is pretty well-versed when it comes to digital dimensions. In fact, just earlier this year, the search engine giant launched its own version of the metaverse named XiRang. This can be accessed via devices such as VR and allows its users to create avatars and communicate with others. 

Xiaohongshu users share their experiences exploring Baidu’s virtual world. Photo: Xiaohongshu

Since XiRang’s conception, the company has carried out a number of initiatives within its domain in order to generate traffic, create hype, and boost the digital universe’s visibility such as hosting the French luxury outfit Dior’s first-ever metaverse show, “On The Road.” The collection was presented through an interactive experience in the “Meta Ziwu” virtual space, envisioned and brought to life by MAD Architects founder Ma Yansong. 

While this opened up the possibility of new avenues for Dior to showcase their work on Baidu, XiRang’s alliance with the fashion industry seems to have hit a standstill since then. Most recently, the operation announced that it is striving to become a metaverse-enabling service (similar to a “Software as a Service” provider) that will assist developers and content creators in making their own products, virtual games, networking apps, and more. Perhaps this will offer a more viable inroad for luxury names. 

As the competition catches up, Baidu needs to stay ahead of the curve for relevancy

Baidu’s Web3 strategy is unique and sets it apart from the other tech leaders entering the space. But that isn’t to say the competition won’t catch up. Take Tencent Holdings Ltd., for example. The Chinese internet titan was recently ranked among the world’s top five largest tech companies out of 164 titles on Forbes’ Global 2000 list, and was the only homegrown business to make the top 20. Now, it wants in on the metaverse race. 

In June, it announced that it would be establishing a new extended reality (XR) department that is set to helm metaverse-related concerns. The news generated a notable amount of buzz on domestic social media, with one Weibo hashtag gaining more than 130 million views. Netizens have also heralded promising outcomes, with one commenting, “Tencent is very good in the gaming sector; they might be good at developing the metaverse too.”

Tech conglomerate Alibaba has already made quite a name for itself within the virtual realms, utilizing e-commerce sites like Taobao and Tmall to showcase its metaversal advances. From introducing a new zone on Tmall’s mobile app dedicated to digital collectibles (and creating their own virtual KOL Ayayi) to launching Taobao’s metaverse mall just in time for China’s 618 shopping festival season, Alibaba is pulling out all the stops to prove that they’re banking on being in the Web3 game for the long run.

Will Baidu’s recent efforts be enough to ward off its local rivals? “In the fast developing and competitive Chinaverse landscape, Baidu’s edge lies in its advanced AI capabilities, already deployed for autonomous driving, and that will support the development of AI-powered digital avatars and AI-powered virtual influencers to directly interact with real users,” Patrice Nordey, Managing Partner at EY Fabernovel, outlines. Whatever other tech enterprises are doing and will go on to do within the space, Baidu’s technological one-ups on its opponents could see the company triumph in building a metaverse empire. 

“The metaverse is the new C-drama, it’s the new China in a way. Though the Japanese nailed this years ago with Hatsune Miku for example, the Chinese have to find their way and build the navigation for their metaverse. It’s an exciting time,” digital leader Kelly Vero predicts. With this in mind, it’s plausible that the virtual space could rapidly become the young generation’s first point of call for entertainment. 

With the country becoming increasingly more open to investments and advancements in Web3 alongside an eager audience base, with the right roadmap, Baidu’s efforts are making its goal of a Chinaverse takeover seem more and more possible.

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