Niantic Accelerates the Real-World Metaverse

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One of the companies at the center of the shift to the metaverse is Niantic. Mostly associated with its breakout hit, Pokémon Go, it has evolved its business to be more of a developer platform for geo-local AR experiences. Known as Lightship, the platform is expressly built to enable the real-world metaverse.

For example, using Lightship, developers and businesses can create location-based experiences like AR scavenger hunts. Restaurants can create AR animations that integrate with physical locations, letting customers unlock deals, leave geo-anchored social content, and generally engage with their brand.

Last month, the company accelerated this mission by launching Lightship for Web. This makes its real-world metaverse platform more scalable, letting developers build web AR experiences (as opposed to apps). This is also the first big move using the technology gained in its recent 8th Wall acquisition.


Stepping back, what this does is combine two real-world metaverse modalities that individually hold lots of promise: geo-local AR and web AR. To understand the opportunity that Niantic has unlocked requires diving into each of these concepts. Let’s take them one at a time, starting with geo-local AR.

Niantic’s Lightship platform builds on the concept of a visual positioning system. Rather than GPS satellite data, it uses visual signals in the world around us to localize a given device. Once that device knows where it is and what it’s looking at, it can infuse the right digital content.

Niantic isn’t the only one developing this principle. Google’s Live View 3D navigation localizes devices using Street View imagery as we recently examined. Object recognition from its Street View database can inform a device where it is and in what direction it’s pointing, thus enabling 3D wayfinding overlays.

That gives Google a meaningful edge in developing VPS-based navigation. So, how will Niantic gain that level of visual data in its VPS system? The answer is its users. For a few years, it’s been crowdsourcing the development of spatial maps as Pokémon Go players roam the earth and do their thing.

With Lightship, it hopes to scale up these efforts with spatial maps assembled from several apps that are built on the platform. This works towards Niantic’s “planet-scale AR” ambitions. And it’s well on its way, given more than 100,000 VPS-activated locations globally, with centimeter-level precision.

Just a QR Code Away

On to the second element in Niantic’s latest move, web AR could amplify all of the above by making it more accessible and scalable. Just as it sounds, web AR has been purpose-built to operate in the mobile browser. Advantages include lessening user “activation energy,” such as downloading a specific app.

For example, by operating in the browser, AR is just a QR code away. Plus, developers like it because it operates across mobile platforms. This widens their addressable market and lessens the work they’d otherwise need to do to port AR experiences and apps to different devices and operating systems.

So, what’s the downside of web AR? For several years, the capability didn’t match that of native apps, including tighter integration with device hardware and sensors. But 8th Wall and others continue to close that capability gap (one reason Niantic acquired 8th Wall), tipping the scales in web AR’s favor.

From Niantic’s perspective, web AR allows it to not only lower adoption barriers for users and developers, but accelerate its planet-scale AR initiatives noted above. In other words, more users engaging Lightship-built AR experiences means greater capability to crowdsource its world mapping endeavors.

This is especially pronounced in developing markets where there aren’t as many high-end phones with app stores. Here, the web becomes the great equalizer in that every smartphone has a browser. It’s a key step in Niantic’s goals to spatially map the earth and lead the charge for the real-world metaverse.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at