Niantic prepares for the ‘real-world’ metaverse with new Lightship AR platform

The creator of Pokémon Go has its own vision for the metaverse, and it involves going outside.

A rendering of Niantic's AR metaverse

Niantic thinks the metaverse will be as much about augmenting the world around us as it will be about creating new virtual spaces.

Image: Niantic

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."

Protocol | Workplace

CTO to CEO: The case for putting the tech expert in charge

Parag Agrawal is one of the few tech industry CTOs to nab the top job. But the tides may be shifting.

Parag Agrawal’s appointment to Twitter's CEO seat is already alerting a new generation of CTOs that the top job may not be so out of reach.

Photo: Twitter

Parag Agrawal’s ascension to CEO of Twitter is notable for a few reasons. For one, at 37, he’s now the youngest CEO of an S&P 500 company, beating out Mark Zuckerberg. For another, his path to the top as a CTO-turned-CEO is still relatively rare in the corporate world.

His leap suggests that CEO succession trends may be shifting, as technology increasingly takes the center stage in business and strategy decisions not just for tech companies, but for the business world more broadly.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

The fintech developers who made mobile banking as routine as texting or online shopping aren't done. The next frontier for innovation is open banking – fintech builders are enabling consumers to be at the center of where and how their data is used to provide the services they want and need.

Most people don't even realize they're using open banking services today. If they connected their investment and banking accounts in a personal financial management solution or app, they're using open banking. Perhaps they've seen ads about how they can improve their credit score by uploading pay stubs or utility records to that same app – this is also powered by open banking.

Keep Reading Show less
Bob Schukai
Bob Schukai is Executive Vice President of Technology Development, New Digital Infrastructure & Fintech at Mastercard, where he leads the technical design, execution and support of innovative open banking and fintech solutions, as well as next generation technologies to support global payment and data capabilities. Prior to Mastercard, Schukai’s work focused on cognitive computing, financial technology, blockchain, user experience and digital identity. He is also a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Protocol | Workplace

Google contractor says she was fired for 'ungoogley' behavior

According to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board, "ungoogley" is Google's term for having a bad attitude.

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job after asking about pay.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job for "ungoogley" behavior after asking about holiday pay at a meeting with management, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board by a lawyer for the Alphabet Workers Union.

Tuesday Carne said in an interview with Protocol that she was fired after just nine days of working in the data contracting facility in South Carolina. Carne's termination letter (which Protocol reviewed) called her behavior at the meeting "unacceptable and 'ungoogley'" and claimed that her behavior was the reason for her firing.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | Policy

Biden FCC nominee Sohn is walking a tightrope with Republicans

Gigi Sohn faces plenty of GOP opposition, but the longtime net-neutrality advocate is hoping to pick up a little Republican support as she deals with Democrats’ narrow margins.

Gigi Sohn’s work for net neutrality has become an issue in her confirmation hearings for the FCC.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn wouldn’t mind getting support from a Republican or two, and it’d certainly make her path back to the Federal Communications Commission easier.

During her Senate Commerce Committee confirmation on Wednesday, Sohn, a progressive favorite and longtime net-neutrality advocate, touted her commitment to ensuring a diversity of voices on the airwaves, her past fights for small conservative networks she personally disagrees with and her habit of socializing with those she battles on policy.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

Microsoft Teams is going after small businesses

Microsoft Teams Essentials offers longer, bigger meetings for a relatively small price tag.

Companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams.

Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Microsoft announced Wednesday that companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams — one of its most important products and a major player in work messaging and video chat, alongside Slack and Zoom. The product, called Microsoft Teams Essentials, aims to give small or medium-sized businesses a communication hub that costs less than its competitors'.

Microsoft will charge small businesses $4 per user per month for Microsoft Teams Essentials, while Zoom’s cheapest paid plan is $14.99 per user per month and Slack’s is $6.67 per user each month, when billed annually. The free version of Microsoft Teams still exists, as do the various other Microsoft 365 plans that include Teams. Teams Essentials offers longer meeting times, larger group meetings and more cloud storage.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories