On Tuesday, China’s search giant Baidu opened internal testing of a major update for Xirang, the company’s virtual reality app. The app will host the company’s AI developer conference next week, kick-starting Baidu’s effort to become an infrastructure platform in the metaverse. 

Why it matters: Baidu hopes the upgraded app and the conference will showcase the company’s AI capabilities and draw in developers to create content and help build a virtual world. 

  • In the past decade, Baidu has been transitioning from a search company to an AI company. The tech giant sees the metaverse as an opportunity to further commercialize its AI capabilities, such as cloud computing, voice and visual intelligence, natural language processing, and knowledge graphs. 

Details: The Xirang upgrade will allow the app to host a three-dimensional virtual conference that can accommodate 100,000 concurrent online attendees. Initially, the pandemic pushed the company to develop the app as a virtual alternative to hosting large in-person tech conferences, but Baidu has further developed the app amid the rise of the metaverse this year. 

  • Baidu started working on Xirang in December 2020. It released the first version at the hackers’ conference Def Con in March 2021, and an upgrade at Baidu’s World Conference in August. 
  • Baidu plans to roll out at least one major upgrade every year, Baidu’s Vice President and manager of Xirang Ma Jie told a Beijing press conference on Tuesday. Baidu is calling the about-to-be-released version a “-6.0”, saying the app needs at least six more years to be fully ready, but it wants to work to that point openly. 
  • Ma added that Baidu “doesn’t plan to do everything ourselves… We have left many unsolved issues in this version and want to invite everyone to help us fill in the imperfections.”
  • Baidu will release the upgrade on Dec. 27. It will also host a conference and a developer contest at the same time. Winners will get to display their work in one of the app’s spaces. 

READ MORE: Metaverse in China: Investors and tech leaders say they are prepared

A rendering of a virtual conference venue on Baidu Xirang. (Image credit: TechNode/Qin Chen)

Context: Baidu is on track to become the first major Chinese tech company to release a metaverse-focused application. Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance have also expanded and invested in the metaverse this year. 

  • Xirang is named after a concept in the Chinese mythical story collection called Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing in Chinese), thought to have been first written some 2,400 years ago. In the book, xirang was a small piece of land used by the mother of a goddess (Nüwa in Chinese) to repair a pillar of heaven. The land could grow infinitely.

Qin is the managing editor at TechNode. Previously, she was a reporter at the South China Morning Post's Inkstone. Before that, she worked in the United States for five years. She was a senior video producer...