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Pokémon Go creator Niantic is gearing up to recruit more developers to its next-generation augmented reality tools using its Niantic Lightship platform. And today it said it’s hired former Oculus leader Dan Morris to run developer relations.
Morris’ job is to help recruit and train third-party game developers to the Lightship platform, previously referred to as the Niantic Real World Platform. Niantic Lightship is offering broader access to the new Niantic Lightship Augmented Reality Developer Kit (ARDK), enabling developers to build interactive and immersive AR applications.
Morris has spent the last six years in a similar role recruiting developers to the Oculus virtual reality platform and helping them developer their games and apps. A 20-year industry veteran, Morris will be the director of developer relations at Niantic in San Francisco. The move suggests Niantic is serious about bringing aboard more outside developers to use its technology, which has enabled games such as Pokémon Go, which generated $5 billion in five years. As smartphone carriers roll out their 5G networks, they need applications such as the kind that Niantic is making with AR games and apps to make use of those networks.
“There’s no other job in the world that I would have left for but this one,” Morris said in an interview with GamesBeat. “I really admire what Niantic has been able to accomplish in AR, as they’re the seminal content company. When I heard that they were beginning to plan a platform that other developers can build on top of, I just thought that was an amazing idea. It’s a pretty incredible opportunity to be a part of it.”
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Niantic Lightship ARDK
Niantic Lightship encompasses the full Niantic platform, including the suite of tools and services that power Niantic games, from Ingress to Pokémon Go to the company’s partnership with Nintendo to bring the Pikmin universe to location-based and AR gaming. With Niantic Lightship, the company wants to set the industry standard for mapping and shared, planetary-scale AR experiences.
Developers can sign up at Niantic.dev to join the private beta of the Niantic Lightship ARDK, as well as to learn more about Niantic Publishing. Niantic launched the Niantic Lightship ARDK as a private alpha earlier this year for hundreds of gaming and nongaming developers. They have engaged with the company’s engineering, product development, and support teams to test the limits of what’s possible with the technology.
“I’ve talked to a lot of developers who you love Niantic games and have lots of ideas about what they would do in a world where they could access the technology that powers Pokémon Go,” he said. “I’ve been telling them in recent days: Here is the opportunity to not only share the idea with us but help us tweak our platform to suit their mission. In my experience, that’s a pivotally important moment of opportunity.”
Morris is reviewing the developer projects and working on the pipeline of applications for the Lightship ARDK private beta. He wants to get thousands of developers involved in the ARDK private beta at Niantic.dev.
Morris said Lightship has more to come this year.
“The Lightship initiative is really meant for any developer in the world,” he said. “It’s going to really scale up the opportunity to build on Niantic’s foundation.”
The ARDK has real-time mapping through advanced meshing, which combines smartphone camera technology with a neural network to map an environment in real time into a mesh of repeating tessellated triangles, resulting in a machine-readable representation of the physical world. In the Niantic Lightship ARDK, meshing makes “physics” possible for virtual objects.
The ARDK will weave together the foundational elements of how Niantic puts out its games, and it will be available to all categories of app developers.
“What I’ll be doing is managing the two-way conversation between Niantic, which is taking this opportunity out to developers, and then in the reverse direction, making sure that the SDKs is adapting and adding to meet the needs of those developers,” he said. “We’ll do that together in the time ahead.”
Mapping the world
In terms of mapping the world in 3D, Niantic’s approach creates meshes using the RGB color sensors found in most cameras, rather than requiring LiDAR scanners only available on some high-end devices. The meshing technology scans the environment around a player, creating in real time a 3D map that allows any Lightship platform experience to place virtual content in the right physical place, combining context from the real-world environment with the developer’s environment. The history of Niantic’s approach to meshing goes back to the earliest days of the company and incorporates the work of acquisitions including Matrix Mill and 6D.ai.
The tech blends with phones that have LiDAR (laser-based sensors), including iPhone 12 Pro models, allowing developers using the Niantic Lightship ARDK to create dynamic maps for experiences. Kellee Santiago is now in charge of external publishing, where Niantic will act for the publisher for other developers.
Morris was part of the Oculus team at Facebook Reality Labs, where he worked closely with XR developers to make Oculus a successful platform for developers of all kinds. His previous experiences include partnerships and strategy roles at DeNA/Ngmoco and Electronic Arts.
At Oculus, he was focused on helping developers meet their goals, whether it was revenue or other things. The hope is to build a content ecosystem where all developers can succeed. While Facebook and Oculus want to create the metaverse, Niantic has its own view that augmented reality and mobile devices will enable a kind of metaverse on the go.
“I’ve learned working with developers for many years that it takes time to make something magical,” Morris said. “The time to get started on that with us is now partly because there’s an opportunity in the months ahead to help us shape the ARDK.”
Good ideas coming
The ARDK is in closed beta testing now, and the company is working with pilot partners to improve it. It will be publicly released later this year.
“We’ll have lots more to say about the opportunity then,” he said. “The timing is perfect for me, because the beta SDK is already exciting. The developers who are working on it, and I’ve got great ideas. And for me now, looking ahead to the full release later this year and beyond into next year. The moment just seems ripe.”
You can expect to see things that are different from what Niantic already has in the market.
“We’re excited about a number of use cases and a number of categories for the platform. I’m already seeing in our beta developers, quite a number of use cases and ideas that are, you know, spanning the gamut like retail, tourism, music, and cultural events.”
He also thinks social impact developers have a big chance to make apps that achieve some kind of social good.
“What they will all have in common is that they will be about people connecting out in the real world, which to me is the spine that runs through the whole strategy, Morris said.”
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