As you may have heard, Niantic has launched its AR developer platform, Lightship. This is partially a rebrand of the existing Real World Platform, but also a functional transition. The latter refers to the platform’s release as an SDK, or augmented reality developer kit (ARDK).
This is a significant step as Lightship will be made available to developers on broader and more open basis. Real World Platform was conversely available to select partners. More importantly, this move seals Niantic’s fate as an AR platform — a direction it’s been headed for a while.
Though the company has risen to prominence — and sustained financial performance — through Pokémon Go, the platform is its long-term play. This approach could bestow more sustained value and diversification by tapping into SaaS-based (or AR as a Service) revenue streams.
Like the Real World platform, Lightship will reach that goal by productizing the things that make Pokémon Go work. It packages up Pokémon Go’s architecture, geolocation capabilities, game mechanics and other key components into a geospatial AR experience creation engine.
Scale & Semantics
Going deeper on Lightship, what will it be and do? At a high level, the ARDK will democratize the mapping and planet-scale AR experiences that Niantic has developed in its own games. That includes multiplayer AR with depth, physics, occlusion and semantic scene understanding.
Niantic specifically lists three core ingredients (verbatim):
Real-time Mapping through advanced Meshing combines smartphone camera technology with a neural network, to map an environment in real-time into a mesh of repeating tessellated triangles, resulting in a machine-readable representation of the physical world. In the Niantic Lightship ARDK, meshing makes “physics” possible for virtual objects.
Semantic Segmentation improvements in the beta distinguish between varied characteristics of a space — ground, sky, a building, etc. — so that virtual objects can look, feel and move in that space in realistic ways. Lightship can automatically segment different natural outdoor objects in a scene, enabling AR content to interact with specific surfaces.
More robust Multiplayer functionality allows developers to benefit from colocalization, networking, and synchronization improvements, enabling immersive multiplayer experiences where up to eight players can share the same AR experience in the same real-world space at the same time. Peer-to-peer messaging and back-end server features are built in, so developers can focus on sculpting the shared experience players will have. While this kind of content anchoring is currently ephemeral, we know that long-term virtual content anchoring will enable developers to build future AR experiences that persist.
Drilling down on one of the areas above, Niantic excels in meshing, partly due to its 6d.ai acquisition. This gives it advanced spatial mapping on commodity (RGB) sensors. It can scan environments and create real-time 3D maps on the fly to enable believable AR interactions.
But the bigger advantage could be one not listed above: scale. The world is a big place so far-flung spatial maps could require a federated approach. By lowering adoption barriers for developers, Lightship’s resulting scale could engender a collective AR cloud that builds over time.
Circling back to an earlier point, Lightship has a strong business case in that it can help diversify Niantic’s revenue. In other words, it adds SaaS-like platform revenue to already-enviable in-game player spending. This not only means recurring revenue but better long-term stability.
In fact, this evolutionary path from consumer-facing gem to business-facing platform has worked before. One example that comes to mind is Foursquare — going from early 2010’s check-in app darling to its current state as a B2B location-data powerhouse (and audio AR play).
But the more apt historical analogy is probably AWS, as we’ve examined in the past. After cultivating and optimizing the platform through internal use, Amazon spun it out as a service for others to use. In that form, it became one of the most successful tech products of the past decade.
Besides business success, AWS is known for democratizing advanced capabilities for startups. And that’s where Lightship’s real impact could be seen. If it can unlock geo-located AR, it could meaningfully accelerate the sector and stand as the next decade’s defining AR platform.