Niantic took a big step last week towards accelerating its planet-scale AR ambitions. Specifically, launched Lightship for Web, bringing its visual positioning service to the 8th Wall platform. This is the first big move stemming from Niantic’s March acquisition of 8th Wall.
One outcome is to make geo-local AR more accessible through the browser. Inversely, this not only brings web AR capability to Niantic’s Lightship platform, but it brings geo-local AR to 8th Wall. That will unlock location-relevant AR for brands, developers, and local businesses.
For example, they can create multi-location experiences like AR scavenger hunts. Chain restaurants can create AR animations that integrate with their physical locations, letting customers unlock deals, leave geo-anchored social content, and generally engage with their brand.
Altogether, Niantic may have found AR’s peanut butter and chocolate moment. In other words, it’s merging the advantages of geo-local AR (a.k.a, the metavearth) and web AR, which makes these experiences more accessible. Let’s look at these elements one by one.
Visual Positioning System
Starting with Lightship itself, it builds on the concept of a visual positioning system. Rather than GPS satellite data, it uses visual signals in the world around us to localize a given device. Once that device knows where it is and what it’s looking at, it can infuse the right digital content.
Niantic isn’t the only one developing this principle. Google’s Live View 3D navigation localizes devices using Street View imagery. Object recognition from its Street View database can inform a device where it is and in what direction it’s pointing, thus enabling 3D wayfinding overlays.
That gives Google a meaningful edge in developing VPS-based navigation. So how will Niantic gain that level of visual data in its VPS system? The answer is its users. For a few years, it’s been crowdsourcing the development of spatial maps as Pokémon Go players do their thing.
With Lightship, it hopes to scale up these efforts with spatial maps assembled from several apps that are built on the platform. This works towards Niantic’s “planet-scale AR.” And it’s well on its way, given more than 100,000 VPS-activated locations globally, with centimeter-level precision.
Beyond just scaling its platform, Lightship is meant to bring more functionality to geo-local AR. It represents the next evolution in UX, beyond what Pokémon Go has offered. As AR purists often argue, Pokemon Go’s graphical UX isn’t “true AR” as much as it is “floating stickers.”
The idea with Lightship is to gain more location-relevant and precise digital interactions in the real world. And that starts by gaining greater computational understanding of a device’s surroundings. This includes geometric as well as semantic understanding (knowing that a tree is a tree).
The Great Equalizer
On to the second element in Niantic’s peanut butter and chocolate moment, web AR could amplify all of the above by making it more accessible. To that end, Niantic decided to buy rather than build, and to do so with web AR’s undisputed champ, 8th Wall. That’s now bearing fruit.
What is web AR? Just as it sounds, this is AR that has been purpose-built to operate in the mobile browser. Led by 8th Wall’s platform, advantages include lessening “activation energy.” AR is still too early and unproven to get users to jump through hoops, or wait for app downloads.
For example, by operating in the browser, AR is just a QR code away. And developers like it because it operates across mobile platforms. This widens their addressable market and lessens their work to port AR experiences and apps for different devices and operating systems.
So what’s the downside of web AR? For several years, the capability didn’t match that of native apps, including utilizing native libraries and tighter integration with device hardware and sensors. But 8th Wall and others continue to close that capability gap, tipping the scales in web AR’s favor.
Back to Niantic, web AR allows it to not only lower adoption barriers for users and developers, but accelerate its planet-scale AR initiatives. In other words, more users engaging Lightship-built AR experiences means greater capability to scale its world mapping endeavors.
This is especially pronounced in developing markets where high-end phones with app stores and heavy bandwidth requirements aren’t as pervasive. Here, the web becomes the great equalizer – a key step in Niantic’s ambitious goals to spatially map the inhabitable earth.