Internet & Tech

A very short reign

How a metaverse app briefly toppled WeChat

Zheli w

Zheli: living life through avatars

Some ideas in tech make it into our daily lexicon before they become an everyday reality. The hottest buzzword during the pandemic has to be the metaverse, which refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets. China’s internet companies have smelled a potentially lucrative opportunity too. About 1,500 Chinese companies have recently applied for trademarks related to the term ‘metaverse’.

In a sign that the concept is gaining momentum a platform that allows users to mingle in the metaverse last week became the most popular app in China with a record high of 435,000 downloads from the App Store.

Zheli, which means ‘gel’ in Chinese, is a 3D avatar maker that allows users to share their daily lives with friends. It also displays users’ approximate location and what ‘mode’ they are in (at school, at work, or in a shopping mall, for instance). The app provides fashionable characters and outfit options to create a customised avatar.

On February 11 Zheli replaced WeChat as China’s most downloaded app. It’s the first time that Tencent’s super app had lost top spot in the ranking since 2019.

Fans of Zheli say that what sets the app apart from other metaverse start-ups is the aesthetic. The 3D avatars are beautifully designed and the outfits, of course, are trendy and fashionable. Some of the app’s users show off the outfits they have chosen for their avatar on their WeChat accounts. Others are so pleased with their digital avatar that they have updated their profile image on WeChat with it.

“Compared with other virtual social apps, Zheli’s attention to detail is impressive, such as clothing, animation, and how friends are listed,” one user gushed. “Even when an avatar is just walking around during the day, the app makes sure it has a shadow.”

Zheli maintains that it is a platform where users can be the “truest version of themselves”, so every user can add no more than 50 people to their list of friends. With a 3D avatar, users then interact with their virtual friends in a shared room that resembles an apartment. Real-time communication and location sharing are encouraged.

The app has also been hugely popular with long-distance couples, many of whom interacted in the online “apartment” on the platform during the holidays.

“It’s much more interesting to move your real world life status and ideas online and see what your friends are doing rather than just posting a status on your Moments (a social networking function on WeChat),” one Zheli user explained.

It wasn’t long before some users began to complain about glitches on the app, saying that loading time is too long and that it constantly crashes. There were also grumblings that a lot of the app’s design look familiar, insinuating that Zheli may have been found inspiration from 3D avatar social start-up ZEPETO and real-time location app Zenly.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is that the app doesn’t have that many functions. “After creating our avatars and outfits, I don’t really know what else to do on the platform,” one wrote. Another concurred: “The app looks really good, but there is a lack of functions for repeat experience.”

Just days after Zheli toppled WeChat on the App Store, the owner of the app, Beijing Particle Information Technology, suspended downloads. The company cited “a continuous, organised effort by larger platforms” to spread false rumours and attack its credibility. It also denied having collected user information without permission when accusations surfaced from netizens claiming that their WeChat and QQ IDs were being taken by the app without their consent.

“We never expected Zheli to be loved by so many users in such a brief period,” Beijing Particle Information Technology wrote in a post. “If the number of users increases further, no matter what we do, it will be difficult to provide the best user experience.”

Since the latter half of 2021, there has been no shortage of companies trying to capitalise on the rise of metaverse. In addition to start-ups like Zheli, there’s Baidu’s XiRang, Honnverse from In My Show – NetEase has also invested in start-up IMVU, just to name a few…

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