Facebook finds a way into China by partnering with Xiaomi to introduce virtual reality headsets

Facebook ties up with Xiaomi to produce the Oculus headset for the Chinese market. The social media giant has tried for years to gain entry to China, where it is blocked

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 11:35am

Facebook, which has been wooing the Chinese market for years, has found a way into the world’s most populous country by partnering with Chinese electronics maker Xiaomi for a virtual reality headset.

On Monday at the CES technology show in Las Vegas, Facebook announced that Xiaomi will make the hardware for its US$199 Oculus Go portable virtual reality (VR) headset. The California-based company will also jointly launch the Mi VR stand-alone virtual reality headset with Xiaomi, a separate headset targeted at the Chinese market but running on Oculus’ technology.

The Mi VR stand-alone headset will allow Oculus developers to launch their content on Xiaomi’s VR platform, giving Facebook a way around internet regulators in a country where strict censorship laws mean that US apps such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are blocked.

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Facebook’s vice president of VR Hugo Barra, who on Monday announced the partnership, is a former Xiaomi executive who oversaw the Chinese firm’s rapid international expansion.

“Through our partnership with Xiaomi, both Oculus Go and Mi VR stand-alone represent our first step in delivering that sweet spot between mobile and PC VR. These devices will be, hands down, the easiest way to get into VR,” said Barra.

Xiaomi designs and sells smartphones, tablets, fitness trackers, and apps. Since its launch in Beijing 2010, the company has gone on to become one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world, challenging Apple and Samsung for market share, particularly in China and Southeast Asia.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has been looking for a way into China for years – the social networking site has upwards of 2 billion users globally but has struggled to gain traction in the country.

Facebook’s partnership with Xiaomi comes after an announcement last week that Google led a US$120 million funding round in Chinese mobile game streaming company Chushou. Google’s Chushou investment is its second Chinese start-up investment, and experts also see the move as a way for Google to tap the Chinese market.

It also follows news that US telecommunications carrier AT&T has dropped out of a deal with Huawei, China’s biggest smartphone maker, to sell the latter’s flagship smartphone reportedly due to political pressure.

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Last year, media reports said that Facebook had worked with a local Chinese company to launch a photo-sharing app dubbed Colorful Balloons on the Apple app store in China, without attaching the company’s brand to it. Facebook also currently sells ads to Chinese companies looking to reach Facebook users outside China.

Zuckerberg has had several high-profile meetings with Chinese politicians including President Xi Jinping. Their most recent meeting occurred in October last year at an annual meeting at Tsinghua University’s business school, where Zuckerberg serves as an adviser.

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Zuckerberg has also been learning Mandarin since 2010, according to his Facebook page. He first showed off his Mandarin speaking skills at an event in Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University in 2014, where he did a 30-minute question and answer session with students in only Mandarin.

In 2015 at a White House dinner, Zuckerberg reportedly asked Xi to name his unborn child, but Xi declined.

In March 2016, Zuckerberg also posted a photo of himself going on a run past Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on a smoggy day without a face mask – a move widely discussed by Chinese internet users who saw it as Zuckerberg’s attempt to appeal to the Chinese market.