Baidu, the world's No. 3 digital advertising player after Google and Facebook, wants to be known as more than China's biggest search engine. Like Google, it's using revenues from search ads to fund tech innovation. And like Google, it has huge ambitions.
The company, working with Studio Output's Beijing office, just released a brand video (above) that lays out its vision of a future powered by artificial intelligence. Baidu has a deep learning lab in Silicon Valley, and its chief scientist is Andrew Ng, a former top researcher at Stanford and Google.
Wu Wenting, senior product manager for Baidu's brand management department, said the video aimed to convey warmth amid the technology. The team was inspired by the atmosphere in the Spike Jonze movie "Her" – it's futuristic but still familiar and personal.
"Most of the brand films or ads in China are too extravagant and use too many special effects or grandiose performances to show off their technology," Ms. Wu said. Baidu wanted to show that technology can feel natural, "like oxygen."
The video, released this week as the company held its Baidu World conference, spotlights areas where the tech giant is already innovating. On self-driving car technology, the company has a partnership with BMW; Baidu expects to test the vehicles in China this year. The video evokes Baidu's Siri-like digital assistant Duer, and shows how its Google Glass-like technology could help people navigate retail environments.
There's a scene where a man slips on smart glasses to look at a remote village; a sensor projects a vision of a lost ancient town that used to be there. That's a nod to one of Baidu's projects this year. After the April earthquake in Nepal, Baidu appealed to internet users to send in their travel photos so it could digitally reconstruct lost Nepalese heritage sites.
Some of the scenes show technology that's still just an idea – the company doesn't yet have a magic "button" that can attach to people's skin to monitor their health.
Baidu doesn't make brand films often; Ms. Wu said the last ones she could recall dated back a decade, when the company was still competing with Google for the search market in China.
The 2005 videos were called "Baidu knows China better." (Watch here.) One was a mini-Tang Dynasty costume drama pitting a brilliant Chinese scholar (Baidu) against a hapless, arrogant foreigner (Google). The Chinese scholar wins and gets the girl in the end. The foreigner loses and keels over.
In retrospect, that film looks oddly prescient.
Google shut down its mainland-facing search engine in 2010, after a standoff over online censorship there, and the Chinese government eventually blocked internet access to Google services from Gmail to Maps. In the battle for China's 668 million internet users, Google is no longer so much of a threat to Baidu.