At a special launch event today, Niantic announced it’s opening up the Lightship AR Development Kit (ARDK) platform, a software development kit with the kinds of tools the company uses to make Pokémon Go’s ‘world-scale’ gameplay possible. And to attract third-party developers to the platform, it’s also announced $20 million fund which it hopes will kickstart AR development.
Niantic is releasing its augmented reality tools, which features the geo-location functionality which we’ve seen in other Niantic games, such as Pikman Bloom, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and the company’s seminal title Ingress.
With an eye for the future of its burgeoning AR ecosystem though—something Niantic is definitely calling a ‘metaverse’—Lightship ARDK notably brings the company’s real-time mapping technology which allows developers to create multiplayer AR experiences for both Android and iOS mobile platforms. For now, multiplayer experiences can connect up five players in a single shared space, but we’d expect that number to grow as developers push the boundaries in their own apps.
The video above is a basic demo of what’s possible, however Lightship ARDK also includes its ‘Semantic Segmentation’ APIs, which use computer vision to identify objects such as the ground, sky, water, buildings, and more. ‘Meshing’ APIs in ARDK also let users create real-time 3D mesh maps, which digitizes the topography of a room for use during gameplay.
The idea behind both computer vision object recognition and mesh mapping is to better blend virtual objects with the environment, and do things like provide realistic occlusion so a virtual ball rolling behind a couch will disappear from view just like you’d expect a physical ball to.
Over the past few months Niantic has worked with a few creators during ARDK’s closed beta. At the event, the studio showed off a number of experiences and games running on the platform including an app from Historic Royal Palaces to celebrate the Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, a manga app from industry veterans Shueisha, a giant virtual butterfly for the Coachella 2022 app, and new AR functions from the UK’s Science Museum Group and meditation app TRIPP.
The studio also announced an initial $20 million development fund from its newly established Niantic Ventures arm, something it hopes will accelerate the growth of AR applications and experiences using the Lightship platform.
“Niantic Ventures will identify companies doing unique work to build the AR ecosystem, and will serve as a co-investor alongside other venture capital and angel investors,” the company says in a press statement. “The model is optimized to accelerate the growth of promising companies using AR in new ways and in various industries.”
Niantic is making the core APIs in the Lightship ARDK, including Semantic Segmentation and Meshing, free to use for developers. Its Multiplayer API will be free for apps with fewer than 50,000 monthly active users, but will introduce a fee structure for apps with more than 50k monthly active users. You can check out the pricing schedule at the Lightship ARDK website.
Niantic too is dubbing its app ecosystem a ‘metaverse’ of sorts, which may suggest that apps built on Lightship ARDK will one day share some level of app interoperability.
Similar projects are in the works by Meta (formerly Facebook), Epic Games, and Roblox, and Microsoft, however Niantic is the only one approaching it purely from the AR side of things. Earlier this summer the studio showed off prototype demonstration of Pokémon GO running on HoloLens 2 and a teased glimpse of a see-through headset which we’re still eager to hear about. It’s undeniably preparing for a future of all-day AR glasses.
We’re hoping to learn more about where the company is headed at the its upcoming in-person developer conference, which is scheduled to take place in San Francisco in May 2022. Niantic says we’ll hear more about updates on the platform at Niantic Lightship Developer Conference there.