As far as visions of the metaverse go, exploring a digital world populated by fluffy animals and colourful flowers is more exciting than sitting round a conference table in a virtual meeting room.
Niantic, the augmented reality (AR) company behind popular mobile game Pokémon Go, has entered the race to shape the metaverse, giving external game developers access to its technology to create their own applications for the first time.
Both Facebook and Microsoft have showcased ambitions to create the metaverse — digital worlds where people play as avatars in virtual or augmented reality at home. Niantic is pushing for a ‘real-world metaverse’ that incentivises people to explore the outdoors instead.
Some of Lightship’s first partners include music festival Coachella and the Historic Royal Parks, where users will be able to plant AR flowers in a moat around the Tower of London next year.
“This assumption that all of our futures are going to be like The Matrix, that we’re going to be plugged into some alternate reality, would be a nightmare,” said John Hanke, Niantic’s chief executive and founder.
Lots of apps in the market try to promote harmful activity such as excessive use, or create divisions in communities, Hanke said. “I think inclusivity and getting a breadth of people making and creating in this space upfront, is really important.”
Access to Niantic’s technology platform, called Lightship Augmented Reality Developer Kit, will be free to apps with under 50,000 monthly active users. Any exceeding that threshold will be charged $5 per 10,000 users.
Developers will soon be able to access Niantic’s “treasure chest of technology and data”, including mapping technology that pinpoints real-world locations to digital hotspots in AR. The company has already mapped out vast chunks of the world by collecting data from millions of players.
Niantic has also launched a $20m fund called Niantic Ventures to invest in companies registered on Lightship.
Hanke said that revenue from Pikmin Bloom, a game launched with Nintendo two weeks ago, and established games like Pokémon Go, will mean it can avoid relying on venture capital investment for its new platform.
Pokémon Go has remained popular, entering its fourth year of growth of over $1m in revenue. Data from app research firm Sensor Tower estimates it has generated more than $5.5bn from player spending since its launch in 2016.
But last week, Niantic also announced that it would be shutting down Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, a game that by comparison has flopped. In the two years since its launch, the game has amassed 20.3m downloads worldwide and made $39.4m from player spending, according to Sensor Tower.
Hanke said it was winding down the game in January because of poor audience growth and dated technology.
“There has long been this question of what the next Pokémon Go will be, or what could take its crown in AR mobile gaming,” said Louise Shorthouse, senior games analyst at Ampere Analysis. “Hopes were certainly high for Wizards Unite, but it was poorly received from the start due to the perceived complexity of the game, over-monetisation, and difficulties in acquiring enough energy to actually play.”