The creator of Pokémon Go reveals its ambitious vision for the future of computing

Screenshot/Niantic‘Codename: Neon,’ a prototype AR app that Niantic may or may not ever release as a standalone game.
  • Niantic, the creator of hit mobile games Pokémon Go and the forthcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, showed off its cutting-edge augmented reality (AR) technology at a press event this week.
  • Niantic revealed the Real World Platform, a service that should make it easier for developers to integrate state-of-the-art AR into their own apps.
  • It also announced the acquisition of Matrix Mill, a small augmented-reality startup.
  • The key takeaway: Beyond just making smash-hit games, Niantic wants to become a key provider of software and services for AR, which Apple and others believe could be the next big thing.

Pokémon Go is having a moment – a recent report says the two-year-old game brought in $US104 million in the month of May, up 174% from the same period in 2017.

The same report says Pokémon Go is hitting the highest player counts since 2016, the year of its launch.

Now, Niantic, the developer of Pokémon Go, is taking a victory lap of sorts, as it revealed more about its underlying technology and the next steps for the company at a press event at its San Francisco headquarters this week.

At the event, Niantic didn’t offer many updates on Pokémon Go, its upcoming Ingress 2, or the much-anticipated Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. However, Niantic CEO John Hanke did say that Pokémon Go has “tens of millions” of players, and that there’s plenty of appetite for more augmented-reality apps and games like it.

“We think this is an immense opportunity that’s only just getting started,” Hanke said.

Niantic john hankeNianticNiantic CEO John Hanke

As such, Niantic – which spun out from Google in 2015 – is accelerating its ambitions around augmented reality, the extremely buzzy technology for projecting digital imagery over the real world. Companies including Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook believe AR to be the next big thing in computing.

In a more practical sense, Niantic announced the acquisition of Matrix Mill, a small augmented-reality startup that spun out of University College London in the UK. Plus, it previewed the Niantic Real World Platform – a set of technologies for building augmented-reality apps that any developer can licence and use in their own software.

The Matrix Mill technology is pretty neat, and centres on the idea of occlusion. With most AR apps, including Pokémon Go, it’s hard to maintain the illusion that a virtual object is actually there, because when someone or something steps in front of your phone’s camera, the virtual object is still there, hovering in space.

With Matrix Mill’s occlusion technology, though, a virtual Pikachu can actually hide behind bushes or dart behind pedestrians, presenting a much more immersive world. It’s not perfect, but it hints at big things to come. Check it out:

Niantic also gave us a taste of the Real World Platform, with the promise of more details to come later this year.

The Niantic Real World Platform represents the culmination of a lot of the company’s research into augmented reality, said company officials at the presentation. While recent iPhone models support Apple’s own ARkit technology, and Google’s Android has ARcore, Niantic says it’s layered on special sauce that makes it easier for developers to take advantage of AR, while also adding new features not offered by either major phone platform.

To that point, Niantic showed off Codename: Neon, a prototype of an augmented-reality game built on the Real World Platform that may or may not ever come out as a finished game.

Codename: Neon does a few things that are uncommon in most modern AR games: For starters, players on Android and iOS devices can play together. It also tracks your fellow players as they move around in the real world, with minimal lag – which is good, because Codename: Neon is basically laser tag, adapted for augmented reality.

Check it out:

I got to play Codename: Neon with a cohort of my fellow journalists, and came away impressed. As with the occlusion demo, it’s not perfect, but it’s fast, fun, and just works, even with some players on iPhones and others on Android-powered Google Pixel 2 phones. It points to a promising future for AR games.

Niantic also showed off one more prototype during the event, called Codename: Tone Henge. This is a multiplayer puzzle game, supporting similar technology as Codename: Neon. This one has an added bonus of “masking” other players in a digital avatar, which is a neat effect.

Check it out:

Whether or not these demoes ever become full-fledged games remains to be seen. However, it’s clear that Niantic is investing heavily in becoming a major player in the nascent augmented-reality industry – which could help the company, which spun out of Google in 2015, have a source of income beyond the fickle market for smartphone games.

“As the field develops, the application of AR is beyond just entertainment,” said Niantic AR research lead Ross Finman.

Finman hints that the same kinds of digital mapping of real-world spaces that lets you catch a Pikachu in the park could one day help a robot navigate your home without bumping into things. In other words, while the technology is best for games today, the sky’s the limit for what it could do tomorrow.

On a final note, I can’t stress enough that Niantic didn’t reveal any new details on Harry Potter: Wizard Unite. However, playing Codename: Neon and seeing the video for Codename: Tone Henge, it’s hard to fight the feeling that we secretly, stealthily got a preview of some of the technology and gameplay coming to the app.

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