Niantic Releases Lightship Tools for a ‘Real-World’ Metaverse

Niantic, the San Francisco tech firm best known for publishing the wildly successful mobile AR app “Pokémon Go,” is opening a version of its platform to the world with the release of the Lightship augmented reality developer kit, designed to enable AR experiences for “the real-world metaverse.” Niantic CEO John Hanke, who led Google’s geospatial division through the transformation of Google Maps and Google Earth, says Lightship will incorporate a “visual positioning system” that interoperates with glasses to place objects in the real world. In March, Hanke teased an image of Niantic-branded glasses created by Qualcomm.

Qualcomm announced in December 2019 it was working with Niantic on smart glasses for its 5G Snapdragon XR2 platform, which supports eye-tracking, voice-based interaction and passthrough camera (activating the rear camera as a window to an augmented environment beyond the lens).

Software developed using the Lightship AR developer kit (ARDK) will interoperate with Niantic glasses that “will be able to understand exactly where they are in the real world, which will let virtual objects (such as a Pikachu) stay anchored persistently to real-world locations,” writes The Verge, noting that the VPS functionality will be added in a 2022 Lightship ARDK update.

Features included on launch include meshing and semantic segmentation. Meshing APIs create real-time 3D mesh maps capable of understanding the topography and surfaces surrounding a user. Meshes persist throughout an app session, using machine learning to expand and improve as the user moves. Semantic segmentation APIs use computer vision capabilities to distinguish between elements — ground, sky, water, buildings — in a real-world environment to ensure AR objects will interact correctly.

Hanke is staking out a distinctively natural niche in the metaverse. He calls on technology to “enhance the human experience,” characterizing as “a dystopian nightmare” a metaverse in which reality is replaced by “an elaborate VR massively multiplayer video game,” according to an August blog post.

The Lightship ARDK announcement says that “instead of enabling people to escape from the world, our goal is to use technology so people can engage with the world.” Niantic envisions “a metaverse that brings people together in person, rather than in a virtual world,” writes TechCrunch, noting its “existing games emphasize outdoor activity and meeting new people.”

Simultaneous with the ARDK rollout, the company is also launching Niantic Ventures, with an initial $20 million fund “to invest in and partner with companies building the future of AR.”

AR Is Where the Real Metaverse Is Going to Happen, Wired, 11/8/21

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