What we learned about Spatial Computing by visiting Niantic, the #1 mobile Augmented Reality business

You know Pokemon-Go, right? It has hundreds of millions of users. It’s the number one most-used example of mobile AR that’s out there. It was built by Niantic Labs, a company that was started by the team behind Google Earth.

So, to kick off the video series that our new Spatial Computing Agency, Infinite Retina, will do with business leaders in the space, we visited Niantic to talk with Ross Finman. He runs augmented reality research there, and his team is readying a new platform that will first see the light of day in “Harry Potter Wizards Unite”, a new mobile game that will come this year.

  1. They are patient and are taking a data vs flash approach. Niantic started life building a game very few knew, or played. I was familiar with it, because back when Google + was just starting out, and gaining some popularity, it was popular with that crowd. People would go out, and play the game in the real world on their mobile phones. That gave them the data about the real world, like where parks were, where real users wanted to play the game, etc. That helped them land the contract to do Pokemon-Go, and also, let them work through the early challenges of figuring out the user experience, and scaling the databases, etc, up, in relative obscurity before the millions of users showed up thanks to the Pokemon brand. They now are planning to leverage all that into a bigger Harry Potter event, and, then, into a platform for developers to build their own world-scale apps on top. Some in the Spatial Computing community don’t like talking about Niantic, seeing it as a weak example of AR/Spatial Computing. They are right, and Finman and his team doesn’t care about being the sexiest user of augmented reality, just that he sees new opportunities to use technology to improve game dynamics and collect even more data to make the game better.
  2. This company is thinking about world-scale from its first breath. Many companies in the Spatial Computing space start out by building marketing activations, or immersive games, that make sense in a living room context, or a booth context. Niantic started by thinking about a game you play while walking or moving around the real world. Listening to Finman you hear that focus and core competency everywhere. They don’t want to just figure out what you are doing in your Living Room, they want to figure out the real world and how to apply that to making their World-Scale platform and games better. But don’t underestimate where they are going from here. Last year Niantic bought Finman’s firm, Escher Reality, because they were building an AR Cloud, so look for lots of new AR features in its future games.
  3. It avoids privacy concerns by focusing on user utility. Both on and off camera I peppered Finman with all sorts of questions about how they were going to ingest data from their users. Soon we’ll be wearing cameras, microphones, 3D sensors, eye sensors, and more. Some are looking for ways to ingest everything, but that attitude will, I believe, eventually run into major trouble with not just regulators, but a new, astute customer base (my nine year old son and I talk regularly about the data that’s being collected by the devices and social networks in our world and how that data might be used for, or against, us). Finman says Niantic will be very measured and particular about the data it collects, only doing so to make the game more interesting. So users will get deep utility in trade for the data that they are giving the system and the system won’t do an overreach, grabbing for data the user doesn’t expect it to (or doing something unexpected with that data).
  4. Planning on new technology, like 5G, and augmented reality glasses. Finman, especially off camera, knows deeply the technology coming (he had cofounded a company, Escher Reality, which Niantic bought) and is building his systems to take advantage of 5G, and Augmented Reality/Spatial Computing glasses, like Magic Leap or Hololens, when those get popular with consumers over the next few years. He knows expectations on entertainment, and, even, things like robots and autonomous cars, will change and that Niantic has to keep pushing the technology to show consumers mind-blowing new entertainment, and other apps, that keep it ahead of the rest of the industry.
  5. Understanding the real world is key. Where Finman lights up the most is when you talk about artificial intelligence and its use in understanding the real world. He came out of the robot/autonomous car world, where technology has to be taught to “see” and understand the world. He’s applying that kind of computer science to bear in entertainment instead of moving a robot around the world. He is seeing systems that will “look around” the world, understand you are in a forest, say, and present the right virtual beings and right entertainment for that environment. He shows that Pokemon-Go already does some of that. If you are near water, he says, the system will present different Pokemon characters to you than if you are, say, in a shopping mall. He says that AR Cloud technology is just about to make that much more important. He asked “what if you could know you are on a sidewalk, vs. walking on grass in a park?” He posits that games could present much better experiences if they understood the world a lot better.

This is the start of a new video series called “Spatial Computing Catalyst” that Infinite Retina and Irena Cronin, CEO, and me, Chief Strategy Officer, will be doing. We also are doing a new Podcast series, as well, which we will do a few times a month.

Instead of doing a lot of focus on consumer stuff, like VR games, since there are plenty of others out there who do that, we retweet the best over on our Twitter account, we will be focusing on the businesses underneath these products and on the ecosystem that helps build these businesses, whether it’s the VCs, the PR people who help these companies build their stories, or the lawyers who help these companies set up and protect intellectual property.

Please let us know who you would like us to interview next by dropping us a line on Facebook or on Twitter.