Niantic has made a name for itself in the mobile gaming industry through its continued success Pokémon Go. Now the company hopes to do something else: a platform for other developers to build location-aware AR applications.
This plan has been underway since at least 2018, but it is making a big leap forward this week with the long-awaited release of Niantic’s AR mapping software, called Visual Positioning System, or VPS, in a nod to GPS. Technology makes AR so that AR experiences can be grounded in a physical location, such as the front of a building or a park monument, instead of just floating aimlessly through a phone camera view.
Developers can now use VPS as a feature of Niantic’s wider Lightship SDK, which also allows multiple devices to access a shared AR experience – such as a multiplayer 3D game – at the same time. The VPS will be free during an initial public beta period and then switch to a scalable billing system based on the number of monthly users of an app later this year, according to Niantic spokesman Jonny Thaw.
In addition to VPS, Niantic is also launching Campfire this week, a site-based social network that integrates with its games and future applications using Lightship. Campfire taps your Niantic account friends list to display their locations on a map if they choose, along with in-game experiences. You can organize and respond to real meetings for these experiences, e.g. POKEMON raid and chat with other players in a team. The goal is for Campfire not only to make Niantic games more social, but to provide a way for other developers to discover their Lightship-powered applications from the company’s millions of users.
To power the VPS, Niantic has amassed millions of real-time phone camera scans from both Entrance and Pokémon Go Players. It claims to have more than 20,000 VPS-enabled locations worldwide, along with accurate centimeter-level maps of large parts of San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.
With this level of location, Niantic hopes to offer a critical piece of infrastructure for AR applications, whether it be phones or, ultimately, smart glasses. The company charges developers with large user bases for access to aspects of Lightship on the server side, including VPS and multi-player functionality. This gives Niantic a potential revenue stream in addition to the significant cash flow it already generates Pokémon Goalthough CEO John Hanke does not expect Lightship to be a substantial revenue guide in the near future.
A few months ago, Niantic bought 8th Wall, a startup that sells AR development tools for the web rather than native iOS or Android applications. Niantic plans to continue to operate 8th Wall and integrate Lightship, allowing browser-based AR experiences to access its mapping technology. While larger companies such as Meta and Snap prioritize AR developer tools for their own platforms, Hanke sees the opportunity to offer a toolbox that works anywhere through a web browser.
“Our goal is to create tools for people who want to create applications that can run on multiple platforms and that they own and control,” he says. The lip. “And they are not just functions in the service of someone else, but in fact they are applications that can exist on their own and around which entire companies can be created.”