Google adopts a new approach to bring its AR service to China

Google has adopted a novel way to do business in China, where its online services continue to be censored, after it partnered directly with three OEMs to bring its augmented reality service to the country.

ARCore, the company’s augmented reality SDK for Android, launched in full today following its announcement in November.

Google says there are 100 million devices that support ARCore right now in the market. That was always its target and that was broadly assumed not to include China, like most Google services due to the censorship, but Xiaomi, Huawei and Samsung have all signed on to release devices that will include ARCore support over the coming months.

Including hardware support is easily done — these devices will all be ‘higher-end’ smartphones — but the software side is trickier since the Google Play Store is not available on Chinese soil and the third-party app store is fragmented. For that component, Xiaomi, Huawei and Samsung will release ARCore apps through their own app stores.

ARCore itself works on device, without the cloud, which means that once apps are downloaded to a phone there’s nothing that China’s internet censors can do to disrupt them.

Partnership with OEMs in this way is a first for Google. It builds on the company’s release of a “China-proofed” version of its Google Translate app last year, which was offered via a number of third-party Android stores and a direct download.

More broadly, while this ARCore-China move may not seem huge, it’s a significant step which shows that Google finally appears to have an actual strategy for China beyond ad hoc activities as it was in the past.

In past months, we’ve seen Google agree to a partnership with Tencent, invest in China-based startups — biotech-focused XtalPi and live-streaming service Chushou — and announce an AI lab in Beijing. Added to that, Google gained a large tech presence in Taiwan via the completion of its acquisition of a chunk of HTC, and it opened a presence in Shenzhen, the Chinese city known as ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware.’

TechCrunch understands that the China ARCore strategy isn’t focused on monetizing the service at this point. Instead, Google aims to open the service up to Chinese developers to allow them to create apps on the platform that could be used anywhere in the world. Likewise, it may help raise its brand among consumers if ARCore apps take off and provide an entertaining experience. There’s no reason Chinese users shouldn’t be able to enjoy that like anyone else in the world.

That focus on utilizing up Chinese talent leads back to the planned opening of an AI Lab in Beijing. Google appears to be seeking ways to tap into the developer community and skills in China without having to take big steps like relaunch the Play Store, something that has long been speculated but would be difficult to actually pull off.

Working with OEMs to distribute apps is a far more nimble and efficient approach, and it’ll be interesting to see if Google repeats this strategy in China.