Despite the main platform of Facebook being blocked in China, Facebook has partnered with Xiaomi, a smartphone brand based in China, to develop a stand-alone virtual reality headset – the Mi VR Standalone. The device will be sold only in the Chinese market and will have the Oculus logo on it. Facebook acquired Oculus four years ago.
Though it will not be possible to access Facebook on Mi VR Standalone, the device will give Facebook some exposure in the world’s second biggest economy. Following the tightening of censorship laws, the social media giant has been banned in China for close to a decade. The Menlo Park, California-based social media giant has however tried repeatedly to make a comeback and Facebook executives have severally tried to court Chinese officials but with little success.
Facebook’s online advertising rival and fellow American tech firm, Google, is also employing a similar strategy. Late last year Google announced that its first artificial intelligence center would be built in the Chinese city of Beijing. The announcement was made after China had already made its ambitions in the artificial intelligence field clear – that in the next 12 years the most populous country in the world aims to be the global leader in AI. By then China estimates that the local AI sector will have reached a value of approximately $150 billion.
“New products with new technologies are more easily accepted by the Chinese government. Officials would very much like to see western companies introduce their technologies here, and it will definitely help with government relations,” Canalys’s research director, Nicole Peng, said.
The approaches that Facebook and Google are using may not make business sense in the near term. In last year’s third quarter for instance a little over 100,000 virtual reality headsets were sold in China. With Oculus Rift content and Facebook’s services not available in China, Mi VR Standalone faces an uphill battle in this highly fragmented VR market. For Google on the other hand, the commercial benefits are unclear though the AI facility the online search giant is building in Beijing is critical in the collection of data.
Another concern is that any goodwill Google and Facebook will try to cultivate with China may not yield fruit. This has been proven by Apple whose chief executive officer, Tim Cook, has sometimes sided with China in matters that raised criticism in the West. Despite this some of Apple’s services such as iTunes Movies and iBooks Store remain blocked in the world’s most populous country.