China’s Virtual Obsession With Guns and Porn
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2016-05-23 01:01:03

In February, Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise appearance in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress — the largest mobile industry conference on Earth — caused a flurry of activity across social media platforms. He was there to discuss Facebook and Samsung’s new virtual reality (VR) partnership, and since then search results in China for VR have exploded, according to data released by Baidu Inc., China’s largest search engine.

However, while interest in the industry is at an all-time high, China is facing two major problems. First, its focus is on hardware production. There are currently over 1,000 companies catering to this in Shenzhen alone, a city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. And yet, many countries besides China are pursuing the complete opposite approach. In an online conversation with He Jibo — an associate professor at the Wichita State University Psychology Department — he told me that most immersive multimedia companies in the United States are focusing their research efforts on content and software development over hardware.

Second, while the VR and augmented reality technology overseas has been applied to some extent in the military, medicine, and education sectors, in the rare instances of the Chinese market producing software over hardware, it is almost always based around gaming or leisure pursuits that focus on male users. It’s extremely uncommon for VR content to be produced with female users in mind.

For the moment, it seems the industry China is slumped in an uncreative limbo, producing unvaried content capable of satisfying only a fraction of the market — that is, when it even creates software at all.

For the moment, it seems the industry China is slumped in an uncreative limbo, producing unvaried content capable of satisfying only a fraction of the market — that is, when it even creates software at all.

Hu Liubin, a film director who currently teaches at Shenzhen University, said that one of the reasons the Chinese industry is having such a hard time developing is that it is very difficult and expensive to produce in-depth computer-simulated content. “The unity between what the character sees and what the user sees, the ability of the content to spark an emotional reaction in the user, the resonance of human-machine interaction after the tech merges with our bodies — these are all challenges facing the creation of VR content,” he said.

It would seem then that the industry is simply lazy, looking only to turn a quick profit. This was further substantiated by a visit I paid to an immersive multimedia company in Shenzhen. Since a lot of my published work focuses on cybersex, I was invited by them to come discuss my research as they were in the process of developing an adult product. We spent most of the time discussing my work in the field of “virtual lovemaking.” Afterward, I offered to participate in the research and development process for their new product but was swiftly refused. Apparently the company had just wanted a few sexology theories to use in their presentations to increase their credibility with investors.

This only goes to show that Chinese computer-simulated content production is mainly concerned with fulfilling the fantasies its male producers and consumers have toward girls and generally have no interest in what a woman has to say on how to form the product. The industry is currently able to satisfy the demands of its male users, but to diversify its market, VR must expand into other sectors. To be fair, there have been a couple examples of Chinese companies trying to branch out, but so far the scale has been very small.

At the recent Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism Architecture Conference held in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, a piece was exhibited called “Shenzhen Leaps.” Audience members were invited to sit on two moving chairs while wearing VR glasses which took them on a 1990s tour of Gangxia — an old village in downtown Shenzhen that remained undisturbed as the metropolis grew around it.

This exhibit was a comment on the enormity of Shenzhen’s urbanization over the last several decades. It was a collaborative effort by governmental departments, public institutions, and private enterprises, and its great success at the conference showed that there is a lot of potential for VR in the education sector.

VR is also moving to media. Shen Xiaolei previously worked in Africa for Phoenix Television. On returning to China in October 2015, he launched an immersive journalism studio called Seelephant. This type of journalism uses VR to create a world that users can explore for themselves, thus absorbing them entirely into the story. Seelephant focuses on contemporary African news and documentaries, and while its content may not be China-specific, it nonetheless shows an expansion of the domestic immersive multimedia industry.    

Shenzhen Leaps and Seelephant offer a glimmer of hope forward for an industry that is currently stationary. China must continue to use its technological supremacy in the world to diversify its market and create content that engages users in more profound ways than first-person shooters or online sex.

(Header image: A man demonstrates a virtual reality first-person shooter game at the Yiwu International Expo Centre, Zhejiang province, April 27, 2016. Lu Bin/VCG)