a phone with the game Pokemon Go outdoors in a park

Pokemon Go still defines AR gaming for most people. Niantic’s software tools could build out ways to make other social games next.


Niantic/Screenshot by Carrie Mihalcik/CNET

The same tools that let people run around gathering Pokemon in the park could be opening to many more people soon. Developer Niantic’s newly renamed world-scanning AR-enabled platform, Lightship, is starting to work with invited partners in a private beta that aims to open up further later this year. Maybe for immersive theater? Or outdoor community games? Museum exhibits? Who knows?

Lightship, formerly known as Niantic Real World Platform, is the company’s vision for multiplayer phone-based AR that can work across iOS and Android. Right now, augmented reality on phones tends to be a single-person experience, or is funneled into multiperson experiences built by specific companies, for example Microsoft’s Minecraft Earth, or Pokemon Go. Nintendo’s upcoming Pikmin game, being developed with Niantic, wants build off similar multiplayer concepts.

Lightship can scan the real world and map it for AR, much like Apple’s lidar-based iPhone and iPad tech — but it also can do it without needing lidar. Niantic acquired a company called 6d.ai that will map 3D landscapes and crowdsource world maps with regular phone cameras, and it’s really being used in this software toolkit.


A gif from Niantic showing how its ARDK (AR development kit) could be used to roll giant dice somewhere.


Niantic

There are some limits to Lightship. The multiplayer is restricted to eight people at the same time for shared AR experiences in the same place at this time, and any collaborative AR building of objects is likely to be “ephemeral,” according to Niantic, meaning none of it’ll be permanently stored to geographic locations. But eventually, this is the longer-term plan.

The private beta applications are over on Niantic’s developer site, but Niantic suggests an even more open beta will be just around the corner. Niantic’s not revealing who early private beta participants are right now, but the company has recently announced partnerships with Nintendo and immersive theater company Punchdrunk. One early music AR project, Rhizomatics, was shown by Niantic last year. It gives a notion of what other apps could do.


Niantic’s Lightship isn’t made for AR headsets yet, just phones (and maybe compatible tablets). But the company’s already exploring the future of AR glasses through partnerships with Microsoft and Qualcomm, and has teased its own possible AR glasses.

We might hear more in the future, but the possibilities for things like music festivals, sports or any other large-scale outdoor gathering are definitely intriguing. If nothing else, it may be getting easier for an entrepreneurial indie game developer to generate the next Pokemon Go.