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Starting a new job during the pandemic can be a challenge. Joining a 600-plus employee startup as a C-level executive over Zoom meetings sounds especially daunting — but when Megan Quinn became Niantic's COO in mid-April, it was a bit like a homecoming. "In many ways, it feels like a collaboration 20 years in the making," she told Protocol during an interview earlier this week.
Quinn had worked closely with Niantic CEO John Hanke after his mapping startup Keyhole was acquired by Google close to two decades ago, and she helped him set up the original Niantic Labs team that would ultimately be spun out of the search giant in 2015. Hanke advised her after she left Google herself and subsequently leaned on her expertise when she became a VC, led Niantic's $200 million series B round while at Spark Capital, and joined the startup's board in 2017.
Protocol caught up with Quinn just days after Niantic hosted the first-ever distributed event for its runaway AR gaming hit Pokemon Go. During our conversation, she shared her thoughts on the changing nature of work during the pandemic, plans to open up the platform that powers Pokemon Go to other developers, and the next big paradigm shift for AR consumer adoption.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You started your job in the midst of the Pandemic. How has the company shifted gears internally in response to COVID, and what trends are you seeing across the industry?
I tell folks that we are all in the midst of the broadest unplanned experiment in workplace dynamics since the industrial revolution. And like any experiment, we are learning and adapting. We are collecting data in terms of how our employees feel about their productivity, their happiness. And we have good external indicators in terms of our pace of product releases.
I very much subscribe to this view that we're very effective right now, but potentially burning through social capital that has been developed over time. Relationships built in person will fray as we continue to be remote. But the ultimate answer is that we just don't know yet.
Niantic did host Pokemon Go Fest, a worldwide distributed event that was attended by millions of players, last weekend. How did you plan for that, and how did it ultimately play out?
It played out phenomenally well. It was our most successful Go Fest to date. I am still stunned by the level of engagement from our community over the course of the weekend, and the positive feedback that we received from players around the world.
It was a really remarkable lift by a very large, cross-functional team. We've gotten into a routine around in-person events at Niantic. I consider ourselves very good at those at this point in time, and our players enjoy getting to actually physically share their enthusiasm for our products with each other in person.
But magically, we were able to re-create that level of excitement and community and engagement this past weekend through things like our livestream and through elements of surprise and special gameplay. I think now, more than ever, people are looking for opportunities to engage in positive play with their friends, their families, whether they're physically with them or whether they're with them in spirit through gameplay. So I was delighted we were able to provide that experience.
Niantic is going to make some significant donations as a result of the festival?
We will be donating all of the proceeds from our ticket sales: 50% to Black creators who are creating AR gaming experiences that particularly speak to the Black experience, and the other 50% to local nonprofits in communities that are focused on rebuilding.
We initially set a floor, just to put a real number on it, of $5 million, because we thought we would be able to get there from ticket proceeds. And it was such a massive success that we are now going to be donating over $10 million to these two different efforts. I think that it was a real rallying moment internally for the team, because we are now creating this experience not for us, not even just for our players, but for the world at large. That opportunity was really exciting.
A while back, Niantic announced plans to launch a platform that would allow developers to build their own AR games and experiences. How have those efforts been going?
We are building a planet-scale platform that connects AR experiences to the real world. That has always been the primary thesis of the company since we first started. We just happen to be the very best customers of that platform today. It's a very mature platform in that it's able to support as large a customer base, and scalable infrastructure, as Pokemon Go.
We are in the process of inviting some third-party developers to work with us on different applications for the platform. We expect that the experiences built on the Niantic Real World platform will be well outside of gaming, and we're excited to see what developers come up with.
When will this platform be open to everyone?
In my role as COO, I'm always asking for things faster and sooner and better and cheaper. So I have an idea of what I would love to see, but I think it's going to be a bit of a piecemeal process. We've already started bringing developers in to test pieces of that platform and give us feedback. We're going to continue to do that through the end of this year, exposing more and more of the platform to developers and ensuring that we are able to support the different types of experiences that we think should exist in the world.
Niantic is best known for games like Pokemon Go. Does this attract developers who are equally focused on gaming, as opposed to other location-based AR experiences?
Naturally, given that our games are so popular, people do come to us with development ideas that look a lot like games, and we are excited to work with folks on those opportunities. However, we are equally excited to support all different types of AR real-world experiences with this platform, and have announced externally that we are working on 10 applications ourselves, with a plan to launch two a year. You will find that those applications are not all games, that is hopefully going to serve as inspiration for developers of the different types of experiences they can create when you combine AR with the physical world.
In December, Niantic made some headlines when the company announced that it was partnering with Qualcomm on the development of AR reference hardware. Do you want to build your own AR glasses?
We are not building our own hardware, nor do we have plans to. But given the unique position that we are in as experts in the industry on AR and location, we do talk with a lot of folks about the opportunity for them to build hardware. Our relationship with Qualcomm is a very public statement around that. We will work with them on a reference design of what we think a best-in-class Niantic experience looks like in a new form of hardware, but it's not a signal of intent to build the hardware ourselves.
In your opinion, how far out are we from consumer-grade AR glasses reaching the market?
I think we are 12 to 24 months from the next inflection point with AR and consumers. I do think Pokemon Go was the first inflection point. It really familiarized the average consumer to the opportunity that there was with AR, and the delight that AR can provide. Other companies have continued to expand on that journey and that opportunity. But I think the next inflection point, as it relates to new form factors and potentially new experiences that those form factors unlock, is somewhere in the 12 to 24 month range.
Given that timeline, what's next for Niantic? What are you focused on over the coming months?
We'll continue to invest in the applications that we have in the market today that delight millions of players and people worldwide. That will always be a core pillar for the company. But the big opportunity that we are focused on over the next 12, 24, however many months is really this platform opportunity. The ability to unlock the creativity that we believe exists at that seam of the physical world and augmented reality.
That is personally what I am most excited about. It's what I invested in when I was a venture capitalist. That was the vision that was extremely compelling to me as a COO. The ability to create all types of Niantic Real World Platform AR applications not within the four walls of the company, but within the infinite resources of the developer community, is incredibly inspiring. That's what we're most focused on at this time.
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.