Korean facial recognition avatar app Zepeto takes China’s youth by storm

An introduction to Zepeto, one of the most popular social networking apps in China right now. (Image credit: Google Play)

Despite not being available in Chinese, social networking avatar app Zepeto has made it to the mainland.

Baidu searches for “Zepeto” have grown rapidly over the last week, from just under 4,000 on November 28 to more 150,000 hits on Tuesday (November 4). On Weibo, the hashtag #玩zepeto停不下来# (“can’t stop playing Zepeto”) has been read a hundred million times. Weibo hashtag #zepeto打不开# (“can’t open Zepeto”) has been trending too, with close to 72 million readers.

According to a post on an official Zepeto Weibo account, at least some technical difficulties can be traced to the recent boom in popularity of the app. An influx of new people to the platform has caused servers to stutter, leaving would-be users staring at startup screens.

To address the issue, the Korean company behind the app plans to release a China-specific version by the end of December. Official versions of the app are currently only available on the App Store and Google Play, which is banned in China.

The Korean-developed app previously created a sensation in the US and other parts of Asia before landing in China. It even caused some panic online after unsubstantiated rumors arose that the app was tracking users’ locations. (Zepeta’s privacy policy states that it can share non-identifying personal data with third parties, but doesn’t appear to track location.)

Zepeto’s premise is simple enough. The app is free to download, but rewards users for watching ads or making purchases. Its format–allowing avatars to meet randomly or through chat rooms, and take virtual selfies with friends–is not unique, but it does feature youth-friendly dance moves and wardrobe options.

Zepeto users take can pose with virtual boy band members, or show off their moves. (Image credit: Weibo)

Although the app doesn’t seem particularly tailored towards Chinese users, the company behind it–Snow Corporation–is a subdivision of Korea’s Naver, which created the popular Asian messaging app Line. This past January, Snow also received $50 million in investment from China’s Sequoia Capital as well as Softbank Group.

Snow’s namesake selfie app, a former SnapChat competitor, has also previously partnered with Chinese startup SenseTime to create virtual features like a pair of AR sunglasses.

Zaizai, the Chinese version of Zepeto, will launch by the end of this year as a separate entity from the international app. Existing users will be given the chance to transfer their information. Following its launch, the global app will no longer operate in mainland China.