Why Niantic is a dark horse in the metaverse wars

Let's discuss a concept we all agree on is well-defined and that no one is sick of discussing: the metaverse.
Okay, you might be getting tired of hearing all about it. Facebook-now Meta's announcement in July that it would be pivoting to the metaverse, a company frequently accused of not being able to do much but copy, has already inspired a surprising number of clones. Protocol's David Pierce today notes that the tech world recently announced "a fashion, industrial, entertainment, gaming, and a shark metaverse". (He also forgot Match Group's forthcoming metaverse for dating, although I am trying to forget it.

As overwhelming as these announcements may feel, they also reveal something important: This trend, a collection of next-generation portable internet experiences centered around virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses, is far bigger than any single company. It is more likely that some companies will succeed if there are more companies who start to create their own pieces of this new world. The ones that succeed at the end may be different from the ones we expected at the beginning.

The ones that succeed at the end may be different from the ones we expected at the beginning

Niantic Labs is a company that seems well-positioned to capitalize this trend. It was founded as an internal Google startup in 2010, and spun off as an independent company five year later. Ingress, a science-fiction-themed game, was the first time I wrote about Niantic. Three years later, the company was much larger when it launched Pokemon Go. This cultural phenomenon generated over $6 billion in revenue and became a cultural icon.

Niantic was a metaverse company from the very beginning. Its core products are animations that overlay the real world with software and smartphones. The company also announced this year that it is creating a reference design for its AR glasses. This joins companies like Snap and Meta.

The company isn't a fan of the metaverse. The Metaverse is a Dystopian Nightmare. Let's build a better reality," was the headline of a blog post by John Hanke. John Hanke, CEO explained this to me:

We can either hope the world doesn’t become the place that inspires sci-fi heroes or we can do our best to prevent that from happening. Niantic chooses the latter. We believe technology can be used to tap into the reality of augmented reality -- encouraging everyone to get up and walk outside and to connect with the people and the world around them. These are the core human activities that we were born to do. It is the result of two millions years of human evolution. These core human experiences should be enhanced by technology, not replaced.

Hanke spoke today with Steven Levy, Wired.

It takes us from what makes us human beings happy. Our biological evolution allows us to be present in our bodies, and out in the world. Covid has made the tech world we live in unhealthy. Bad habits have been developed, such as kids spending their time playing Roblox and other similar games. We're now extrapolating this and saying "Hey, that is great." Let's multiply this by 10. That scares me to death.

These fears aside, Niantic's vision is in line with Snap and Meta. The company invites other developers to join it in realizing its vision. Niantic unveiled Lightship, an "ARDK," an augmented reality development kit, during a virtual event. It is designed to allow developers to create experiences with the same building blocks that Niantic uses for Pokemon.

You're familiar with Niantic's ability to place cartoon characters in your environment and provide ways to interact with them. For example, Niantic can throw a Poke Ball at wild Pikachus. The technology was unable to distinguish whether you were outdoors or indoors, on grass or gravel, or if there was a large body water right next to you.

Lightship allows developers to understand these elements and create custom games around them. Long-term goals include creating a crowdsourced three-dimensional map that shows the world. The idea behind software that adapts to your environment is the goal in the interim. Your phone might show you a monster emerging from the water if you are standing on the shore. You might see the same monster clawing out of the grass if you are on dry ground. If you are indoors, a virtual ball might bounce off the table in front you.

Anyone who has ever played a PC or console game will find this not very inspiring. Although Niantic's work is state-of-the art, it is still primitive in comparison to the visions tech companies continue to paint for us in their keynotes. It's easy to believe that some day the truly amazing stuff will be available, having spent over 30 years watching videogames improve. Tech progress is made through steady improvement, as Niantic demonstrated today. It is understandable that the average citizen might not be impressed by all of this.

Nevertheless, the majority of metaverse discussion has been about which giant is likely to be dominant. With its HoloLens business-focused division, Microsoft, will it be? Meta, which is putting its long-term future on a consumer-focused mix of reality, will it be? Or will Apple enter the market after years of secretive work and seize the opportunity to take over the entire market, as it did with its iPhone predecessor?

Pokemon Go is the most loved AR experience to date

None of these seem like bad bets to me. It would be a mistake to ignore Niantic in the discussion, even though Pokemon Go is the most loved AR experience to date. While the metaverse ambitions of the giants revolve around new hardware and software, Niantic has been capable of creating compelling mixed-reality experiences for mass markets using only the smartphone -- a feat that has been equaled only by Snap.

This speaks to the reason I find metaverse talk fascinating: it is legitimately competitive, and most of the problems are still unsolved. There are also technological and policy issues to be considered. This makes it different from social networks today, which are mostly trying to figure out how to make TikTok a tab on their apps and fighting regulators who want them to be broken up.

The metaverse is not yet a viable business. It is not yet a business that has enough developers or consumers to be able to offer a viable alternative. Niantic is not charging for Lightship, unlike its competitors in the space. Developers can use the multiplayer features to let up to five people enjoy the same virtual experience via their phones.

However, many successors based on similar fandoms have failed.

The big question is now whether other developers can use Niantic’s tools to create a Pokemon-scale hit or whether, like Andrew Webster argued at The Verge that Pokemon Go was a fluke. He points out that similar fanatical fandoms have led to other failed efforts. These include Niantic's games based on Settlers of Catan and Harry Potter, as well Microsoft's attempt to create an AR hit similar to Minecraft.

Bull arguments would suggest that Niantic's new tools will allow for novel game mechanics and that the company should distribute them to developers at no cost. There is a chance that a developer might stumble upon a Pokemon-sized hit with these tools. I expect plenty of them to take a look.

I enjoyed Niantic’s keynote today and think that anyone who is even slightly interested in AR or the future of gaming could benefit from it. After a chat with Hanke on Friday at the company's office, I am convinced that he wants to create an alternative to the metaverse in the way it has been presented so far: a utopian replacement to a declining civilization.

It is hard to resist the idea that people spend more time outdoors, even though it requires smartphone games to do so. Yet, after reading Niantic's announcements I am left to wonder if their vision of the future really is that different than its peers. A constant parade of entertainment distractions, mediated through technology, placed directly within our field of vision: If that technology gets good enough it won't matter much if you use it outside.

In other words, augment reality enough to make it a completely new reality. Once that day comes, I suspect we will be pondering the implications for quite some time.