One of AR’s most opportune sub-segments is what we call “AR as a service.” Also known as AR building blocks, these enabling technologies work towards democratizing advanced AR capability for developers. One result of such endeavors is to push AR collectively forward.

Niantic is the latest company to go down this road. Though known best for its breakout hit Pokémon Go, its true fate may be as an AR platform. Enter Niantic Lightship, which turns Pokémon Go’s architecture into a platform on which others can build geospatial AR experiences.

And the timing could be right, as geolocal AR will be an increasingly-opportune area that represents AR’s metaverse. In other words, the metaverse is often discussed in VR terms (or multiplayer gaming), but its AR counterpart will materialize through geo-relevant AR experiences.

This is the opportunity that Lightship unlocks, which was unveiled in full force earlier this week. Though it was available previously to a few early-access partners, the platform is now widely available. We examine the launch event for this week’s XR Talks (video and takeaways below).

Who Will Build the Metavearth?


Going deeper, Lightship packages up Pokémon Go’s architecture and load-tested capabilities into a geospatial AR experience creation engine. This specifically takes form in an open SDK. More accurately, it’s classified as an augmented reality developer kit, or ARDK.

In that form, Lightship will enable app developers to build experiences on top of the infrastructure that Niantic spent years building the hard way. This includes things like scaling up to surges in user behavior, mapping proficiency, location intelligence, UX design, and game mechanics.

“Our semantic segmentation tools understand the elements of the environment,” said Niantic CEO John Hanke during the launch event. “That means developers can focus on building the AR creation and not worry about writing code to understand where it is.”

Drilling down a bit, Niantic lists three core ingredients for Lightship ARDK:

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 realistic ways. Lightship can automatically segment different natural outdoor objects in a scene, enabling AR content to interact with specific surfaces.

Multiplayer functionality allows developers to benefit from co-localization, 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.

Niantic Seals Its Fate as an AR Platform

Planet Scale

Another Lightship 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 barriers for developers Lightship’s resulting scale could engender a collective AR data mesh that builds over time.

Altogether, this will contribute to Niantic’s vision for “planet-scale AR.” The idea is to have meaningful interactions with the real world on a global scale. And this will importantly apply beyond geospatial gaming – including potential use cases for social interaction and local discovery.

Back to the concept of “AR as a service,” Lightship’s value will lie in its position as an AR enabler and accelerant. But notably, it achieves this in a way that’s analogous to one of the biggest enablement tools the tech world has ever seen: Amazon Web Services (AWS).

In other words, just like AWS, Niantic built its engine primarily to power its own product. But then realized it can be its own platform. As such, Lightship empowers a generation of AR startups to add their own levels of creativity to its market-validated geospatial AR foundation.

Meanwhile, this is a strong business move. Though Pokémon Go has achieved $5 billion+ in lifetime revenue, mobile games rarely sustain for so long. A platform could bestow more sustained value and diversification by tapping into SaaS-based (or AR as a Service) revenue streams.

That means Lightship tracks to good business and altruism – both of which are endemic to Niantic’s mission. Now that it’s mastered geo-local AR, it’s logical to spin it out as a platform. That way, developers can focus on user experiences that carry geospatial AR forward.

We’ll pause there and cue the full video below… 

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