The metaverse is as exciting as it is nebulous. The term has become so overused that it’s lost all meaning. This can be seen as the m-word is slapped onto ill-fitting (sometimes comical) press releases and product launches. So it goes with buzzwords in the attention economy.

But though metaverse definitions are elusive – mostly because it doesn’t really exist yet – there are models developing. For example, we could see two tracks. One involves online virtual and synchronous worlds. The other adds digital dimension and context to the offline physical world.

Zeroing in on the latter, this is where the metaverse meets Main Street. it’s what we’ve been calling the “metavearth,” and it’s built on geo-local AR. For example, visual search apps like Google Lens let you point your phone at places and products to activate layers of digital content.

Who Will Build the Metavearth?

On the Map

Beyond Google, another potential metavearth leader is Niantic. Not only did it put geo-local AR on the map with Pokémon Go (which is still going strong by the way), its recently-launched Lightship platform is expressly positioned as “unlocking the real-world metaverse.”

It plans to do this by taking all of the game mechanics and architecture of Pokémon Go and baking them into an SDK (or ARDK) for developers to build geo-local AR experiences. That’s everything from Pokémon Go-like experiences to navigation, local discovery, and shopping.

But as those gears turn, and as developers pick up the platform and run with it, Niantic is quietly building other forms of geo-local AR monetization. Specifically, its lesser-known Sponsorship Platform lets local businesses buy positioning as in-game waypoints in Pokémon Go.

Breaking that down, businesses can bid for placement as real-world destinations in Pokémon Go. This includes the gyms and Pokéstops where players descend in large numbers. They can correspondingly stimulate in-game raids by choosing where and when Pokémon hatch.

Much of this ties back to Pokémon Go’s core game mechanics. 73 percent of players deviate from their regular walking routes – sometimes to sponsored locations – to achieve in-game milestones. Eighty-four percent interact with commercial locations and 58 percent transact.

But the ultimate proof is in the results. SK Telecom has achieved a 10.8 percent boost in loyalty program signups during scheduled raids around its locations in Taiwan. 7-Eleven saw a 10.5 percent revenue lift from the in-game raids it stimulated around thousands of its locations.

XR Talks: What is Niantic’s ‘Real-World Metaverse?’

Building Blocks

Niantic isn’t alone. Google has its own geo-local AR play with Google Lens, as noted. And Snap Scan does something similar by applying visual search to real-world shopping. But like the desktop and mobile web, any prospective physical-world metaverse will evolve organically.

Put another way, it takes a few years of living with new technology before native thinking seeps into the developer mindset. This happened in the smartphone era, and it will happen with the metaverse. It will develop in the coming years in ways that we aren’t even talking about today.

But however the metaverse materializes, there will likely be a real-world counterpart, and it could offer vastly greater value than the online game-like metaverse that’s more often discussed and envisioned today. It will be all about adding digital depth to the physical world around us.

Meanwhile, though we’re years or even decades away from a fully-actualized metaverse — in online and offline forms — there will still be meaningful milestones and precursors along the way. That will include metaverse building blocks that radiate from the AR and VR worlds.

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