Niantic moves beyond games with Lightship AR platform and a social network

Niantic made a name for itself in the mobile game industry through the continued success of Pokémon Go. Now the company hopes to become something else: a platform on which other developers can build location-aware AR apps.

This plan has been in the works since at least 2018, but it’s making a big leap this week with the highly anticipated release of Niantic’s location mapping software for AR, which it calls the Visual Positioning System, or VPS in a nod to GPS. The technology allows AR experiences to be linked to a physical location, such as the front of a building or a park landmark, instead of floating aimlessly through a phone’s camera image.

Developers can now use VPS as the tentpole feature of Niantic’s wider Lightship SDK, which allows multiple devices to simultaneously access a shared AR experience, such as a 3D multiplayer game. VPS will be free during an initial public beta period and will switch to a tiered billing system based on an app’s monthly user base later this year, Niantic spokesman Jonny Thaw said.

In addition to VPS, Niantic is also releasing Campfire this week, a location-based social network that integrates with its games and future apps that use Lightship. Campfire taps your Niantic account’s friends list to show their locations on a map if they sign up, along with nearby in-game experiences. For these experiences, such as a Pokémon raid, you can organize and respond to real encounters, and chat with other players in a group. The goal is for Campfire to not only make Niantic’s games more social, but also provide other developers with a way for their Lightship-powered apps to be discovered by the company’s millions of users.

To power VPS, Niantic crowdsourced millions of phone camera scans of real locations by both Ingress and Pokémon Go players. It claims to have 30,000 VPS-enabled locations around the world, along with centimeter-level accurate maps for large areas of San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle.

With this location layer, Niantic hopes to provide a critical piece of infrastructure for AR apps, whether on phones or, ultimately, smart glasses. The company charges developers with large user groups to access the server-side aspects of Lightship, including VPS and multiplayer functionality. That gives Niantic a potential revenue stream beyond the significant amount of money it already makes from Pokémon Go, although CEO John Hanke doesn’t expect Lightship to be a meaningful source of income anytime soon.

A few months ago, Niantic bought 8th Wall, a startup that sells AR development tools for the web rather than native apps on iOS or Android. Niantic plans to keep 8th Wall up and running and integrate Lightship so that browser-based AR experiences can access the map technology. While larger companies like Meta and Snap are prioritizing AR developer tools for their own platforms, Hanke sees an opportunity to offer a toolkit that works anywhere via a web browser.

“Our goal is to create tools for people who want to build apps that they can use, own and manage cross-platform,” he tells Custom Hour. “And it’s not just features of someone else’s service, but they’re actually applications that can exist on their own and that entire businesses can be built around.”

Update May 25, 3:40 PM ET: After this story was published, Niantic informed us that its VPS system has 30,000 locations, not 20,000 as the company originally told us. We’ve updated the story with this stat.

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