san francisco Little cartoon monsters jump from house to house in downtown San Francisco, hide behind skyscrapers and finally engage in battle at the harbor. They’re scenes from the mobile game Pokémon Go, but the star of this presentation isn’t the digital monsters – it’s the map.
Behind the demonstration are John Hanke and his team from Niantic. The 55-year-old once worked at Google and was responsible for projects such as Google Earth. In 2015 he became self-employed and, thanks to the strong Pokémon brand, created one of the most popular smartphone games in the world.
The recipe for success: Augmented Reality (AR). Virtual content is simulated in real time in the direct environment using a camera lens. And Hanke uses this success to create the “most detailed map in the world” with the help of the “Pokémon Go” fan base. Users should measure their surroundings with their smartphones: streets, buildings, plants.
The three-dimensional measurement should become the basis for completely new applications. “Existing maps are just not good enough,” said the Niantic manager responsible for the project Kjell Bronder the Handelsblatt. This already applies to entertainment apps like “Pokémon Go”. The monsters must optically touch surfaces to make the AR illusion perfect – and not hover over them.
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That is exactly what has been a big problem so far. Digital maps depict streets and paths, but they are far too imprecise for buildings. Also simply because they cannot use live images: “The best maps in the world are constantly outdated. Cars, people or animals move,” said Bronder.
That’s why Niantic relies on constantly updating the map base thanks to its players. As an incentive, users get in-game improvements by scanning real-world objects. Increasingly powerful smartphones are also helping. Apple not only installs high-resolution cameras in its top devices, but also lidar scanners, which can record the surroundings particularly precisely using laser measurement.
John Hanke positions his company as the counter-model to the Metaverse of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “The Metaverse is a dystopian nightmare,” Hanke said. The meta group relies on virtual reality (VR) for its model: users are completely isolated from reality by means of 3D projection via glasses and headphones. This takes time and a correspondingly safe environment.
Niantic’s AR approach, on the other hand, is to use the technologies to encourage people “to get up, go outside and connect with the people and the world around us,” Hanke said.
Niantic wants to be a platform provider
This, in turn, also works as a business model: At the start of “Pokémon Go” in 2016, restaurants and shops paid to have virtual monsters appear near their shops. That should attract customers. AR technology is now also being used for advertising, for example to place collection campaigns or animated magazine covers in stores
Niantic is now working with the chip manufacturer Qualcomm on glasses that can project virtual objects into the real environment. Not only for the little monsters, but also based on environmental data collected there. However, a date for the market launch of the glasses or a price have not yet been set. Such gadgets are still considered the future of the mobile screen, even though Google discontinued its AR glasses a few years ago due to lack of success.
Hanke sees the role for himself and for Niantic in creating the platform. Other companies can then develop games or other solutions themselves. The key should be the new world map. “You can think of it as a kind of GPS, only without satellites and with a much higher accuracy,” explains Hanke.
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The map should be so precise that the exact position of a user can be determined solely from what he sees around him. This should not only work outdoors as before, but also indoors. It would be a feature that goes far beyond existing map material.
The new map was presented to the public for the first time in May. In the meantime, 100,000 locations have been measured, and according to Hanke, new data is constantly being added.
For him, it is also about the future of his company. According to data from market researcher Sensor Tower, “Pokémon Go” has achieved sales of more than six billion dollars since its launch in 2016. But interest is declining.
Harry Potter game falls short of expectations
Sensor Tower analyzes that player spending within the app fell sharply in 2022. In the past year, however, the latest generation of Pokémon games from the manufacturer Nintendo came onto the market. The Japanese are themselves involved in the monster brand.
Niantic challenges one of the largest technology companies in the world with the Facebook group Meta. The company spent more than $10 billion on its Metaverse projects last year. And founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to increase spending even further.
Niantic as a company was valued at $9 billion in its most recent funding round and has raised a total of $780 million in investor funds, according to data from the Pitchbook platform. In short: Despite the success of “Pokémon Go”, Niantic is tiny compared to the meta.
The pressure on Hanke mounts because no other Niantic product has achieved similar popularity. Actually, a game with the next strong brand should become a new profit driver: Harry Potter. But two years after its 2019 launch, it reached just 20 million downloads and nearly $40 million in sales, according to data from Sense Tower. As of January 31, 2022, the game was finally discontinued.
Niantic enjoys a good reputation within the technology scene. The New York-based investment fund Coatue alone has invested $300 million. Coatue partner Matt Mazzeo particularly praised the plans for a 3D map of the world as a motivation for the investment, stating: “We see this infrastructure as the basis for a metaverse for the real world and as a driver for the next evolution of the internet.”
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