Despite just recently announcing its metaverse idea, Meta (formerly Facebook) is already facing stiff competition. Niantic, the company behind the wildly successful mobile game Pokemon Go, is developing a tool for building what it calls real-world metaverse apps.
Niantic is calling the platform Lightship and has billed it as capable of stitching the digital and real-world together.
The company is led by the founder and CEO John Hanke, who previously oversaw Google Maps.
Apps based on Lightship will detect when the user is pointing the camera at the sky or water. They will then map the surfaces and depth of the surroundings in real-time and then place virtually generated objects around real ones.
For people who have played the Pokemon Go game, this concept is not strange. In fact, Niantic is more or less giving out access to the tools it has been using to build its products because it wants other developers to build planet-scale AR apps.
After years of development of Lightship, Niantic is now welcoming third-party developers to use it. The product started life as Niantic Real World Platform in 2018 but was rebranded to Lightship in 2021 with its scope expanded into a full-stack AR development platform. The apps could be used in education or science and location-tied games like Pokemon Go and Pikmin World.
The platform is mostly free, but developers will pay for more advanced features like letting multiple devices share the same AR experience at the same time. The features are grouped under three categories, including real-time mapping, understanding, and sharing.
Kjell Bronder, a senior director of product management, explains, “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.”
Using a ball floating through the air, Bronder highlights the complexities Lightship can handle, “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.”
Despite just granting access, Niantic is ready with a major update for next year, which will enable a visual positioning system for AR glasses. With this update, glasses that have displays within them will recognize their exact position in the real world, enabling capabilities like permanently attaching virtual objects to a real place. This feature will be available in the AR glasses Niantic is building with Qualcomm.
Niantic hopes to set the standard for what AR should look like. Unlike other companies such as Apple and Meta building similar tools exclusively for their platforms, what Niantic has made is multiplatform, meaning it will work on both Android and iOS. This, Hanke believes, will make Lightship more attractive for developers. He explains, “The state of the world today is sort of 50/50 between Android and iOS. And I think it’s going to be much more diversified in the world of AR glasses. So a solution that actually solves the developer problem of being able to write something and create something that’s going to work across multiple platforms is really important.”
Another significant distinction between Lightship and similar products from competing companies is that Niantic wants to blend the virtual world with reality. Other metaverses wish to put people in alternate universes, detached from reality. Hanke even published a blog post that called the metaverse a dystopian nightmare. As such, apps built with Lightship will still be anchored in the physical surrounding.
“There’s a fork in the road,” says Hanke, “One path goes in this direction of apps that are not connected to the world around us and not helping us connect with the people who we are around.” But Hanke is taking a different route: “encouraging people to do things together with other folks who are alive.”
Niantic realizes other companies have great ideas about the metaverse but wants to be available as a foundation for them to build their products and ideas on. “AR is still in the phase where we want to encourage exploration,” Bronder continues. “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.”
Niantic has set aside $20 million to fund companies to build apps that incorporate the metaverse with Lightship.