Niantic is continuing to bet heavily on the idea that it knows where consumer computing is headed, namely toward augmented reality.
The game development startup behind Pokémon GO has some good company with companies like Apple, Facebook and Snap making similar bets, but stakes are high for the studio that hopes it can build an early advantage in foundational AR infrastructure and bring third-party developers onboard, edging out efforts from companies that are quite a bit larger.
Niantic’s experiments are still being bankrolled by their 2016 first-party hit Pokémon GO, which SensorTower estimates is having its best year ever in 2020. A report from the firm suggests that the title has pulled in more than $1 billion in revenue since the start of the year, a marked increase since 2019 that might be surprising, given the social effects of a pandemic. Those revenues have allowed Niantic to be one of the more active acquirers in the AR infrastructure space, buying up small buzzy AR startups like Escher Reality, Matrix Mill and, most recently, 6D.ai.
That latest purchase in particular has acted as a signal for what the company’s next plans are for its augmented reality platform. 6D.ai was building cloud AR mapping software, with companies like Airbnb among its early customers. The tech allowed users to quickly gather 3D information of a space just by holding up their phone to the world. Since the acquisition, Niantic has been integrating the tech into their developer platform and has been aiming to juice the technology with their own advances in semantic understanding so they can not only quickly gather what the geometry of a space looks like, but also peer into the context of what the objects are that make up that 3D mesh.
“We ultimately have this vision that for an AR experience, everything has to come together for it to be really magical,” Joel Hesch, Niantic’s senior director of Engineering, told TechCrunch. “You want precise location information so that you can see content in the right location and experience things together with others who are in the same location. You want the geometric information for things like occlusion or physics interactions. And you want to know about what things mean from a semantic perspective so that your characters can interact with the world in an intelligible way.”
While they’ve been building out the tech, they’ve also been pushing users to try it out. Niantic has been urging Pokémon GO players to actively capture videos of certain landmarks and destinations, visual data from which is fed back into bulking up models and improving experiences for subsequent users. As users gain access to more advanced tech like the lidar sensor inside the new iPhone 12 Pro, it’s likely that Niantic will gain access to more quality data themselves.
The ultimate goal of this data collection, the startup says, is to build an ever-updating 3D map of the world. Their latest tech allows them to peer into this map and distinguish what types of objects and scenes are in these scans, distinguishing buildings from water from the sky. The real question is how useful all of this data will actually prove to be in practice, compared to more high-level geographic insights like the Google Maps API.
Though the company has been talking about their Real World Platform since 2018, they’ve been slow to officially expand it as the enthusiasm behind phone-based AR has seemed to recede since Apple’s initial unveil of ARKit in 2017 prompted a groundswell of attention in the space. “We’ve primarily been focused on first-party games and applications, but we are very excited about extending the platform to be something that more people can use,” Hesch says.
For Niantic and other companies that are bullish on an AR future, their best bet seems to be quietly building and hoping that their R&D will give them a years-long advantage when the technology potentially starts landing more consumer hits.