With a huge cohort of older people, China is embracing the metaverse to help service them.
"Look, I'm already well! There's no need to keep me at home!" Renqin Dorji says these same words every day over breakfast. The fact that he cannot go to school upsets him. He threatens to stop taking his medication. Then one day his schoolteacher calls, promising to come to see him at home.
When the doorbell rings early the following day, it is not his teacher, but a parcel delivery. Dorji, previously full of joy, looked a little disappointed and turned around, ready to return to his bedroom. What he doesn’t realise, is the parcel is a gift from Dorji’s classmates and it will revolutionise his 83-year-old world.
Dorji lives in Horqin district of Tongliao city, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 760 kms from Beijing. Historically the domain of Genghis Khan's brother Hasar, it is an oasis nestled in the desert. It has the most significant Mongolian population in China, people living here are fluent in Mandarin and Mongolian. The Xiliao River divides the city from east to west into new and old towns and is crisscrossed by five bridges in modern and Mongolian architectural styles. Yurts serve as accommodation for travellers, offering views to the grasslands. Groves of golden Euphrates poplar stud the landscape. The area's natural beauty, a gift from nature, makes this small city of 800,000 with blue skies and four distinct seasons, very popular with the elderly.
'I can see them! I saw my classmates and we chatted, and they told me to get well.'
The latest data from the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China estimates the number of citizens aged 60 and older at 267 million (18.9 per cent of the population). This one age bracket is greater than all but the three most populous nations in the world: India, the United States and Indonesia.
Given the number of older people, China has made universities for the aged a standard feature in every city to meet the intellectual and spiritual needs of the elderly. At the University for the Elderly in Horqin, which Dorji attends, there are courses in table tennis, tai chi, opera and dance in addition to traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting courses.
One morning, last September, at 7.30am Beijing time, with CCTV’s Morning News on the television, Dorji put down his suutei tsai, a salty Mongolian milk tea, and called his regular taxi driver. As he walked through the gardens of his community housing compound to meet his driver, Dorji saw flowers that would soon be wilted by the cold autumn winds and he felt a slight chill.
At 175cm tall, broad-shouldered, with silver hair and a square jaw, he walked with an athletic stride. His yellow-white skin showed a healthy undertone in the sunlight. The age spots have begun to appear on his face, but without a closer look, passers-by might think he was a stylishly dressed government official on his way to a meeting. The truth, however, is that at 83, Dorji has been retired for 23 years.
He attends Horqin’s University for the Elderly every weekday, finding it helps to enrich his spiritual world. He is not there to teach; to be precise, he is there to learn. It’s a school where older people learn new knowledge and skills.
From the taxi window, on his 20-minute commute, Dorji monitored the changing colour of the poplars in the distance. He and the trees have history, they have witnessed each other's growth over decades. Sixty-five years ago, in the eighth year of the people’s republic, Dorji, one of New China’s earliest forestry graduates, was assigned to Horqin district. The challenge was to make this desert region more hospitable to human settlement. The Euphrates poplars, growing in Horqin today were planted by Dorji and his fellow students on a study trip to the region. The trees are known to be drought and flood tolerant, can live up to 200 years and play an important role in the fight against land desertification. Dorji's work with the trees and grasses stretched across 40 years, helping to reintroduce grasslands and transform the city into the beautiful place it is today.
On this day, Dorji pushed open the school building door and was greeted by a five-metre-long Chinese landscape painting wall hanging. It is as if by pushing through the door he stepped into this natural scene - a towering tree-covered mountain peak and a rushing waterfall. He recalled closing his eyes to catch a whiff of the earthy mountain fragrance, then someone urgently calling his name. “Mr Dorji! Mr Dorji!” Then, nothing.
Dorji spent two weeks in hospital after his collapse at school. It was mid-autumn, the trees, even the hardy poplars, were shedding their leaves, littering the ground. His daughter-in-law Yang had reassured him there was “nothing seriously wrong with [him], just a benign tumour in your stomach. The doctor said you don't need surgery; go home and take your medication regularly. Don't worry, and you can go home tomorrow."
That night, Dorji sat on his bed, looking out of his ward window at the bright moonlight, thinking tomorrow, he could go home, thinking "finally, I've survived". Once home, Dorji took his medication regularly and reduced his exercise, as prescribed by his doctor. His body had no adverse reactions, apart from some oedema in his hands, feet and eyes.
He was campaigning to be allowed to return to school. "Look, I'm already well! There's no need to keep me at home!" The fact that he could not go upset him, it also made things difficult for Yang. He threatened to "stop taking his medication".
Then came the phone call from his school principal, who said she would visit him at home the next day.
When the doorbell rang the next morning, it was a package delivery. Soon after, Dorji saw the headmistress Jingping Chen arrive and warmly extended his hands. She did not come alone, introducing her friend Xinyu Bao, who ran a small media company and was working with the school.
Chen and Bao knew about the package, explaining it was a gift from the school, and Bao would teach Dorji how to use it.
"It's a gift from all the students you studied tai chi with,” headmistress Chen said, “and they want you to come back and perform at the school's New Year's Eve party together."
Bao took the bland-looking glasses out of the box and put them on his head, adjusted a setting on his phone before removing them and handing them to Dorji with a smile. With the glasses on, the corners of Dorji's mouth turned up in rare delight. "It's great to see you all again!" he said excitedly. Beside him, Chen, Bao and his daughter-in-law Yang could not see who he was talking to or what they were saying. After two minutes, he reluctantly took off the glasses.
"I can see them! I saw my classmates and we chatted, and they told me to get well," he said with a shimmer in his watery eyes. Bao explained that as well as video calls, the VR glasses could help him do other activities at home, like practising tai chi in the metaverse."
"What universe?" Dorji and Yang asked at the same time in confusion.
"You can think of it as a virtual world connected to our real world," Bao said.
Much has been written in recent months about the metaverse and what it encapsulates. “Think of the metaverse as the internet brought to life,” Associated Press said in a recent explainer report. “People can meet, work and play, using virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphone apps or other devices.”Fudan University’s China Metaverse Development Report (2022), sets out the trends we can expect to see as the metaverse is adopted in China:
- Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality devices and their interaction methods will cooperate with Internet algorithms;
- The links between mobile phone manufacturers and Internet and metaverse platforms will increase, with shared data on user habits helping to improve their applications;
- The internet will continue further integration and development with VR.
Headmistress Chen explained the set up to Dorji. "With Bao's technical support and the capture and filming through the cameras in the classroom ... you will be able to synchronise with our classroom, we can hear your voice, and you can hear and see us,” she said. "I don't know anything about technology, I heard it from what Bao told me. You still need to rest at home for now, but every day you can get back to class through this; it is the best we can come up with."
Bao promised to lead Dorji’s daughter-in-law through the steps needed to operate the VR glasses. He looked over at Dorji, who sniffled. He was unsure if it was because what they had done had touched him or if Dorji felt a late autumn chill in the room.
"Don't worry. We will do everything we can to help you,” Bao said, “my mum is your classmate, so that everything will be all right." Dorji didn't say anything, but he added hot tea to Bao's cup.
Chen informed Dorji that the school psychologist Yan Wang was waiting to take his video call via the VR headset. "We'll leave you alone and look forward to you returning to school soon. Take care of your health, Mr Dorji."
Yang expressed her sincere gratitude for their metaverse intervention.
"Our metaverse is also in the early stages of research, and if it is successful, we hope it will help more people like Mr Dorji," Bao replied politely.
Yang was happy, but there was no way she could tell them the real news about Dorji's terminal stomach cancer. Because once the information became known to more people, there was a chance that Dorji would learn the truth. Having lived together as a family for almost 30 years, they knew their dad's fear of illness and death, and they hoped that the well-intentioned lie about the "benign tumour" would help Dorji get through it.
Later, Yang received a call from the school psychologist, suggesting Dorji had some depression. “You could take him for a short walk downstairs." Wang suggested. "Remember to get him to wear his Apple Watch. It doesn't just have fall detection; it has health data inside that could help us provide better mental health advice to him through the metaverse."
A push notification popped up on Yang’s phone: "Horqin will be fully heated six days ahead of schedule to ensure 231,000 families stay warm through the winter". The city-wide apartment building heating program was starting, and in the last days of autumn, her cold room would finally be warming up.
In China, November 7 marks the beginning of the winter calendar and almost everyone will eat dumplings to celebrate it. Dorji's family was no exception. At 7 am, Yang, who had been working in the kitchen for nearly an hour, set two plates of steaming hot dumplings on the dining table and went to Dorji's bedroom to call him for breakfast.
Through the bedroom doorway, she watched Dorji practising tai chi in his VR glasses. It was too early for his class. She wondered which beautiful natural VR environment or mode of experience Dorji had chosen to inhabit on this day. He was quietly immersed in his world, the movements of his hands slowly changing. The rising sun poured its golden, balmy rays across the room but beneath his pure white clothes, Yang saw the outline of his emaciated back.
These sessions have helped Dorji reconnect with tai chi. Yang remembered Bao once told her: "For now, that's all we're capable of and can do."
"But it's enough," Yang thought to herself.