Niantic, the augmented reality platform that develops games like Pokémon GO, raised $300 million from Coatue and valued the company at $9 billion. The San Francisco-based startup, which originally split from Google, will use that money to build what it calls the “real world metaverse.”
In early August, Niantic founder and CEO John Hanke has referred to the metaverse — at least, the one that renders us bound to VR headsets, like in “Ready Player One” — as a “dystopian nightmare.” Unlike Facebook, which changed its company name to Meta to signal its investment in VR technology, Niantic wants to develop technology that brings people closer to the outside world. Earlier this month, Niantic introduced the Lightship AR Developer Kit (ARDK), which makes AR games development tools available for free to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Unity game engine.
John Hanke gave the following words in one of his speeches;
“At Niantic, we believe humans are the happiest when their virtual world leads them to a physical one. Unlike a sci-fi metaverse, a real-world metaverse will use technology to improve our experience of the world as we’ve known it for thousands of years.”
The funding will help develop ARDK, which is currently used by companies like Coachella, Historic Royal Palaces, Universal Pictures, SoftBank, Warner Music Group, and PGA of America to create augmented reality experiences. Therefore, AR projects will generally use smartphones to encourage people to explore their external environment, rather than using technologies like VR headsets that are still inaccessible to most of the population. For example, you might pass by the same mural every day, but a user-generated Pokéstop description in Pokémon GO can tell you what kind of story that mural has. Niantic says tens of millions of people play Niantic’s games each month and have walked more than 10.9 billion miles in their games since launch.
Matt Mazzeo, general partner of Coatue, commented:
“Niantic is building a platform for AR based on a 3D map of the world that we believe will play a critical role in the next transition in computing. We are excited to partner with Niantic because we see this infrastructure supporting a metaverse for the real world and helping to power the next evolution of the internet.”
The VR metaverse may be “dystopic” in Hanke’s eyes, but like any technology, AR isn’t without its problems. Niantic’s newest game, Pikmin Bloom, is designed based on walking mechanics that older or disabled players may have difficulty with. Pokémon GO has a community of gamers with disabilities, but they’re stuck about how certain minor in-game factors can make the game more accessible for people with limited mobility.
Still, Niantic’s vision offers an alternative to Meta’s headline-bound plans. According to app analytics company Sensor Tower, Pokémon GO generated over $1 billion in revenue in 2020 and is on track to surpass that revenue this year. Of course, not all games are that popular, as the company recently announced that it will be shutting down Harry Potter: Wizards Unite after consumer in-app spending and installs fell 57% year-over-year. But as indie developers use Niantic’s Lightship ARDK, we’ll see how far the “real world metaverse” concept can expand.