Baidu pulls virtual girlfriend from VR product after sexism concerns

iQiyi unit of Baidu issues apology and pulls female virtual digital assistant function from its virtual reality headset

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:41am

Baidu, one of China’s biggest technology companies, has pulled a female digital assistant from its virtual reality (VR) headset after a US media report raised concerns that the product promoted disrespect towards women.

Baidu referred a query to iQiyi, its video unit that embedded the virtual assistant in the VR headset, which said it took notice of the issue raised by the media and has taken the product offline for further modification.

“The earlier version of the product was a beta test designed to gather user feedback,” iQiyi said in an emailed statement on Thursday. “We’d like to make an apology for the concerns it might have raised.”

Baidu said it would not issue a further statement apart from the one provided by iQiyi.

A South China Morning Post report last week profiled iQiyi virtual reality user Ma Xiangli from Cangzhou, Hebei province, who said he liked to chat with Vivi, the “virtual girlfriend” dressed like an office secretary.

Powered by artificial intelligence technology, the virtual assistant could answer simple questions and perform tasks like choosing videos based on a user’s viewing history. VR headset wearers could also flirt with Vivi and “touch” her in the virtual world.

China’s iQiyi bets on digital girlfriend to boost virtual reality headset sales

In a report published on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal, said it questioned iQiyi over whether such a product encouraged the view of women as sex objects in the workplace. iQiyi subsequently apologised and pulled the digital assistant function from its virtual reality headset, which had been part of the product since it was launched in March.

iQiyi, the Netflix-style video streaming service in China, came up with the idea of a virtual girlfriend in the headset as part of a strategy to entice 18-to-35 year-old male users. More than 90 per cent of its headset users are men, according to Li Xing, a product director at iQiyi’s virtual reality unit.

iQiyi said the virtual girlfriend icon in the VR headset is now disabled. When users try to activate the function, the system tells them the trial test has been terminated and an official version will be launched soon.

iQiyi’s decision to “remove” Vivi drew mixed reaction from the internet, but a majority of the comments seen online were in favour of the virtual assistant being kept on.

On Sina Weibo, several users commented that the design of Vivi was “a good one” for the “many males [who] are single out there”. “If it is not in violation of any laws, why it is not OK?” one user commented.

Additional reporting by Sarah Dai