A thousand people have a thousand different ideas about the metaverse. But most technologists agree that the Metaverse is the next chapter of the Internet. However, such consensus stops short, 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 centers around the idea of value distribution and relies on blockchain technology. Chapters one and two are both centralized internet of informationwhile chapter three, the so-called Web 3.0, is the decentralized valuable internet.
The first chapter is about read-only web portals plus personal and therefore half-centralized websites. The second chapter is all about reading and writing (think blogging and social media), and mostly centralized by major tech 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 such as Meta and ByteDance, who push for their own visions of the metaverse, which I discussed earlier, Baidu is tech path agnostic.
“We can provide technology capabilities in the API (application programming interface) and SDK (software development kit) that are needed to create a dynamic metaverse, so that everyone can move forward and not you don’t have to spend energy performing these basic tasks,” Ma Jie, vice president of Baidu who also leads the company’s metaverse project called XiRang, 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 have equated Creator City with XiRang, which was described in error in the form of a mobile application. In fact, XiRang is 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 buy these capabilities to help their metaverse projects, whether it’s a metaverse game company that wants to create a new metaverse game or a metaverse social network app who hopes to develop his product.
XiRang for the metaverse is like Baidu Brain for artificial intelligence. Baidu Brain, the company’s open AI platform, offers hundreds of basic AI features and hundreds of thousands of models for developers. XiRang, similarly, wants to be the catalyst for metaverse builders.
How does Baidu plan to make money with this rather laid-back approach? The company basically does the hard and perhaps underrated work. Moreover, the SaaS track in the Chinese technology market is notoriously difficult for a number of idiosyncratic reasons.
Ma’s answer is that reasonable profits are enough. After all, many of the metaverse’s technical challenges such as rendering lag, cloud rendering, VR headset issues like weight and dizziness, limitations on the number of avatars hosted in a virtual environment, and many others still require a long time to resolve. .
Being early, comprehensive (in technological capabilities) and patient could help Baidu. Not being greedy is another advantage. But whether Baidu’s metaverse strategy will work in the end is anyone’s guess. At the very least, the Chinese search engine is unique in its metaverse strategy.
Below is an edited Q&A of 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 useful to use our VR technology to potentially facilitate large-scale virtual events. We started the XiRang project in 2020, and back then it wasn’t called the metaverse.
I personally 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 computing interactions, and there are clearly great opportunities 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 how to buy servers, configure things like software stacks, and so on. It could take months for these elements to be ready.
But now, there are many ready-made services, content and templates to help create a website very quickly. XiRang wants to do the same thing: provide these core 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 today’s 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 many more. We will develop other capabilities such as cloud rendering to drive 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 different 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 skill.
If XiRang wants to be the AWS for the metaverse, does that mean partners using XiRang’s capabilities will have to use Baidu Cloud?
We have an open attitude. XiRang is the catalyst for the metaverse, and we won’t ask people to link to Baidu Cloud. But we will provide all of these other kinds of infrastructure capabilities and services, from the cloud up and including 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 profits 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 may provide licensing permissions, technology cooperation or make joint investments to obtain reasonable returns. 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.
Sounds like a SaaS business model?
Yes, but it’s not purely a Saas business. SaaS is a lightweight business model. But if anyone wants to have a custom setup so they can have more control, we’re happy to provide that more comprehensive solution.
It’s been a while since XiRang’s Creator City caught the eye last year. Any platform updates recently?
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 discrepancy from 100,000 people. My understanding is that many of those 100,000 people sitting in the conference center inside Creator City couldn’t interact with those around them.
Yes, what we meant was that we could host 100,000 people on a set of servers. You might think that all of those 100,000 people were on the same server in the context of the games.
Nowadays, when people play games, they often have to choose a server. People on different servers could not interact with each other. What we did was get those 100,000 people on the “same server” (even though they still have to be hosted on a set of servers) so they could all interact with each other. We designed our own framework to do this.
What impact will China’s privacy and data security laws, as well as a stricter regulatory environment, have on the metaverse?
This is also where we bring value. We will eventually become an international operation and we need to do the data compliance work in different jurisdictions. Despite the differences in laws and regulations in different countries, there are also commonalities.
As a technology provider, we can also help you with this compliance work. This type of work could be a burden for many content creators. But we can learn and grow our expertise in this area as we expand into different countries.
Can you share anything about overseas expansion?
We recently co-created 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 in discussion with them on this aspect.
We also spoke to tourism bureaus and economic development offices in several countries to see if we can bring some of their sights and culture to Chinese consumers via the metaverse.