Pokémon Go creator Niantic on Monday launched Lightship, its software development platform designed to help app makers create augmented reality products using the set of tools and technologies Niantic has developed internally for its mobile games.
Lightship is many years in the making, having started back in 2018 under the name Niantic Real World Platform. Earlier this year, Niantic rebranded the product as Lightship, expanding on its vision of a full stack AR development platform that can empower everything from education and science apps to location-based mobile games like Pokémon Go and the newly launched Pikmin World.
Niantic has grouped these tools into three categories: real-time mapping, understanding and sharing, the latter meaning multiplayer features like those in Pokémon Go. The mapping and understanding categories are built on years of Niantic's R&D efforts in making AR feel more realistic.
"The semantics and the depth and the meshing capabilities help a developer understand the environment and make content that really blends into the real world," explained Kjell Bronder, a senior director of product management at Niantic, in an interview with Protocol last week.
As an example, he said seeing a ball float through the air in AR means it has to interact with real-world objects in real time. "You'd want [the ball] to bounce off a wall and roll on the floor and then when it hits the grass and rolls into the water, you want it to make a splash. That requires a lot of underlying technology."
Niantic says many of the tools, including semantic segmentation and meshing capabilities, will be free to use for any developer. The company intends to charge an undisclosed fee if an app using its multiplayer API amasses more than 50,000 users, though the multiplayer features of the platform will be available for free for the first six months of use.
Lightship's launch is a critical moment for Niantic and for the broader AR space. The concept of the metaverse — a kind of all-encompassing, next-generation internet we'll inhabit through VR headsets and AR glasses — has taken the tech and gaming industries by storm. That's largely thanks to Facebook's rebranding as Meta after Mark Zuckerberg outlined his bold vision for the future of computing. The metaverse has now entered the zeitgeist as a much sought-after, cutting-edge new frontier that tech and gaming companies, as well as futurists and sci-fi aficionados, predict will transform online identity, gaming, work and communication.
Central to this entire movement are AR glasses and software that do what sophisticated smartphone technology does today, but more seamlessly and realistically by mapping and understanding the real world and then floating virtual images in front of our eyes. Niantic knows we're far off from those hardware products and advanced software becoming reality. But like many metaverse-oriented gaming companies, including Fortnite maker Epic and Roblox, Niantic wants to be on the ground floor by helping create the infrastructure that will power whatever form the metaverse takes and giving that technology away to other app makers.
"We're excited about building this real-world metaverse," Bronder said. "We're a mission-driven company, and it's about inspiring people to explore the world together: How do we find ways to augment the real world so you can actually find new things, learn new things, experience new types of content that fit into the world?"
Bronder said Pokémon Go "is a first peek into what that looks like," but that Niantic "doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas" when it comes to AR and how the technology can transform how we live our lives and the kinds of experiences we have.
"We're early on, and we want to try different things out. Gaming is an amazing place where we get to experiment to try and learn what works and take those learnings and put them into our platform and give that to developers," Bronder added. "We're super stoked about this real-world metaverse."
Niantic itself is working with Qualcomm to develop next-generation AR glasses that may eventually come to market. Meta, too, is working on a number of experimental VR and AR hardware projects in addition to less sophisticated consumer products like its Ray-Ban smart glasses collaboration. Meanwhile, Apple has long been rumored to be working on its own family of devices, though it's not clear whether Apple intends to first launch a VR headset, AR glasses or potentially a mixed-reality product like Microsoft's HoloLens.
Yet none of those hardware efforts right now is concerned with widely available AR technology for smartphones in the way Niantic is, giving the San Francisco-based firm a potential leg up when it comes to competing with larger tech titans on developer tools. Niantic hopes many developers will use its technology and maybe create the next Pokémon Go. To that end, it's funnelling $20 million into AR projects through its venture arm.
"AR is still in the phase where we want to encourage exploration," Bronder said. "Our stronghold and foothold of course is in gaming. But we want to expand from that and look into adjacent industries: education and entertainment, and also wellness. Niantic is about exploration and getting people outside." The goal, he added, is to "keep one foot on solid ground as we start expanding."