Niantic is building an AR map of the world, one Snorlax at a time

The company’s Visual Positioning System will help developers build location-based AR games and experiences; a new social app aims to help with AR content discovery.

Niantic is building an AR map of the world, one Snorlax at a time

VPS will allow developers to build location-based AR experiences for tens of thousands of public spaces.

Image: Niantic

Pokémon Go maker Niantic has quietly been building a 3D AR map of the world. Now, the company is getting ready to share the fruits of its labor with third-party developers: Niantic announced the launch of its Lightship Visual Positioning System at its developer summit in San Francisco on Tuesday. VPS will allow developers to build location-based AR experiences for tens of thousands of public spaces, Niantic said.

Niantic also announced a new service called Campfire that adds a social discovery layer to AR, starting with Niantic’s own games. Both announcements show that Niantic wants to be much more than a game developer with just one or two hit apps (and a couple of flops). Instead, it aims to play a key role in the future of AR — and it’s relying on millions of Ingress and Pokémon Go players to help build that future.

30,000 PokéStops turned into AR portals

Niantic’s VPS is, in a nutshell, a growing map of locations that have been scanned and AR-enabled. At launch, the VPS includes around 30,000 such locations, with a heavy focus on public places in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, New York, Tokyo and Seattle.

Over time, Niantic intends to massively grow the number of VPS-enabled locations, and it is relying on the players of its existing games to do so. For about a year, the company has asked players of Ingress and Pokémon Go to record videos of select PokéStops and Ingress Portals.

“We've done a lot of work to make sure that anybody can scan,” said Kjell Bronder, a senior director of Product Management for the company's Augmented Reality & Geodata Platform. “This doesn't require Lidar.”

San Francisco heat map A heat map of AR-enabled VPS locations in San Francisco.Image: Niantic

Pokémon Go players aren’t just asked to scan individual locations — they’ve also helped the company determine which locations to prioritize. “We see where the most popular locations are. We have really good heat maps,” Bronder said.

Once a location is captured by multiple players, Niantic uses the video and additional sensor data to create a point cloud that ultimately enables developers to place AR objects in a 3D space with what Bronder described as centimeter-level accuracy. This will enable developers to not just place AR experiences at an approximate location, but also incorporate buildings, statues and other objects into their gameplay as well as add persistent AR labels to the physical world.

In addition to tapping into the player hivemind, Niantic is also enabling developers to scan their own locations with a new Wayfarer app. Each location is then added to the VPS, with the goal of eventually AR-enabling millions of public places. “We want to unlock the entire world,” Bronder said.

Players and developers will also help Niantic maintain the accuracy of the VPS: for instance, updating it when a store goes out of business or a sculpture is undergoing renovations. “The world is constantly changing,” Bronder said. “Keeping this map up to date is almost going to be a bigger challenge than building it.”

AR discovery, starting with Pokémon

In addition to unveiling VPS, Niantic also used its developer summit for a range of other announcements, including investments into immersive meditation service Tripp and music gaming startup Pixelynx. The company also plans to web-enable location-based AR with the help of 8th Wall, the WebAR startup it acquired in March.

Niantic is also unveiling a new consumer product it calls Campfire, which it refers to as a “real-world social network.” At launch, Campfire adds a social discovery layer to games like Ingress and Pokémon Go, allowing players to find others nearby, discover events, share content and more.

Campfire app Niantic is adding a social layer to its games; Campfire will also be available as a standalone app.Image: Niantic

In addition to being directly integrated into Niantic’s existing games, Campfire will eventually be available to third-party developers using Niantic’s platform. The company plans to launch a standalone Campfire app that will allow people to discover AR content across games and experiences. “This is the place we can come and discover … the content that's around [us],” Bronder said.

In a way, this is a bit of a throwback for Niantic. Back when the company was incubated as a subsidiary of Google, it launched an app called Field Trip that was all about discovering the world around you. Field Trip was not a game, but instead a kind of location-aware Lonely Planet that would ping someone whenever they walked by a sculpture or a house with an interesting backstory.

Campfire has the potential to be the same, only for AR content tied to real-world locations, effectively turning something that used to be an interactive version of a 2D map into a 3D discovery experience — something that will be even more important when people start to wear AR glasses in public.

“You could say it's like adding an extra dimension to Field Trip,” Bronder said.


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