Niantic is releasing a platform for building what it calls “real-world metaverse” apps. Called Lightship, the platform is “built around the parts necessary to stitch together the digital and the real world,” CEO John Hanke tells me.
According to Hanke, Lightship will let mobile apps identify whether a user’s camera is pointed at the sky or water, map the surfaces and depth of an environment in real time, or place a virtual object behind a physical one.
Niantic is best known for creating one of the most successful mobile games ever, Pokémon Go. With Lightship, Hanke says the company is “opening the vault of tech that we’ve been using to build our products” to help others build “planet-scale AR apps.”
Lightship has been in development for quite some time. But starting Monday, it’s open for any developer to access. Most of the software toolkit is free, though Niantic will charge for a feature that can let multiple devices access shared AR experiences simultaneously. The company is also committing $20 million to fund new companies building AR apps.
Niantic is already planning a major update to Lightship for next year, building what Hanke calls a “visual positioning system” for AR glasses.
By using the new system, glasses with displays in them will be able to understand exactly where they are in the real world, which will let virtual objects (such as a Pikachu) stay anchored persistently to real-world locations. It’s a critical component needed to make AR glasses, such as the kind that Niantic is building with Qualcomm, useful.
Niantic wants to “set a pattern for what AR can be”
Hanke, who previously ran Google Maps before starting Niantic, says the goal with Lightship is to “basically set a pattern for what AR can be.” While tech giants like Meta and Apple are building similar software tools, he thinks Lightship’s support for iOS and Android will make it an attractive offering to developers.
“The state of the world today is sort of 50/50 between Android and iOS,” he says. “And I think it’s going to be much more diversified in the world of AR glasses. So a solution that actually solves the developer problem of being able to write something and create something that’s going to work across multiple platforms is really important.”
In August, Hanke wrote a blog post calling the idea of the metaverse a “dystopian nightmare.” He’s against the idea of technology pulling people out of the real world. Unlike the VR metaverse championed by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he wants Niantic and Lightship developers building AR apps that keep people engaged with the physical.
“There’s a fork in the road,” he says. “One path goes in this direction of apps that are not connected to the world around us and not helping us connect with the people who we are around.” The other path Niantic is taking with Lightship, according to Hanke, is “encouraging people to do things together with other folks who are alive.”