augmented reality

A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gaming, Google, harry potter wizards unite, ingress, interview transcript, john hanke, Media, Mobile, mobile gaming, niantic, Personnel, pokemon, Pokémon Go, Social, Startups, Talent, TC, universal studios, Virtual reality | No Comments

Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.

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Focals by North review: The future is (almost) here

Posted by | augmented reality, focals, Gadgets, North, Reviews, smartglasses, Startups, TC, Wearables | No Comments

The concept of an IRL heads-up display has been a part of science fiction since basically the beginning. Big players have tried their hand at it with less than stellar results — most notably Google with Glass, and more recently Intel’s Vaunt. But North may have cracked the nut on smart glasses with Focals.

They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — they’re slightly heavy and don’t feel quite as seamless as science fiction promised they would — but this may be the best pair of smart glasses yet.

Who

Focals were created by North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $200 million in funding. Around the time Google Glass was released, founders Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey and Stephen Lake were working on a smart arm band. They were disenchanted, as were many, with Glass and sought to make something better.

Their first priority? Make a great pair of glasses, then outfit them with technology. In order to do that, they had to allow for prescription lenses, which means the lenses of their product had to be curved. This throws a huge wrench in the idea of lens-projected notifications and content, so Focals created its own special projector.

The company also felt that the touchpad on the side of Google Glass was overly cumbersome, leading them to build the Focals Ring to let users navigate the menu.

What

The Focals are technically AR glasses, but they’re not focused on gaming or content consumption. The product is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch for your face.

These notifications include the date and time, the weather, text notifications, email, Slack, Apple News alerts, Uber notifications, sports scores, turn-by-turn navigation and more. Users navigate this content using the Ring, outfitted with a nub of a joystick, which is meant to be worn on the index finger of your dominant hand.

Users can proactively seek information by clicking the joystick and scrolling, but the headset also serves up information in a push notification, including incoming messages and emails.

Importantly, North implemented a smart response system to keep users from having to pick up their phone each time they get a notification. The system gives users two options: choose from a list of smartly generated responses, or use speech-to-text through Focals’ built-in Alexa integration (the system is listening via built-in mic — but wearers have to opt-in during set up).

However, one of the great advantages for the Focals is also one of its weaknesses. The company chose to build a custom pair of glasses that could work with Rx lenses. That also means that the eyebox (the surface where you can see the projection) is smaller than other AR gadgets, which often use waveguides. In other words, your Focals have to be positioned pretty near perfectly to see the image. The company works hard to make sure that’s the case, fitting the glasses to your specific face. But glasses shift and move throughout the day, which means there’s plenty of re-adjusting in order to see the picture.

All that said, the Focals look surprisingly good. In fact, passersby would be hard-pressed to detect that they’re smart glasses in the first place. They aren’t comfortable enough to wear all day — the extra weight on the front means they get a bit uncomfortable after a few hours. But overall, these are pretty discreet as far as smart glasses go.

How

It’s a relatively time-consuming process to get your hands on a pair of Focals. Because the fit and size are so important to usability, users interested in purchasing a pair must go to one of North’s two stores (there’s one in Toronto, and one in Brooklyn, NY).

The visit to the store is by appointment. Upon arrival, store associates will take you into a booth where you’ll sit before 11 cameras that will 3D model your head, determining where your eyes and ears sit relative to the rest of your face. The cameras also try to understand your gaze.

From there, you get a demo with a standard (not fitted) pair of Focals, during which you learn how to align the Focals and use the Ring. It takes a few weeks for your custom-fit Focals to be ready to pick up, at which point you go through a final sizing with an optician.

It’s tedious, and will be difficult for the company to scale, but it’s part of what gives Focals an edge in quality. Luckily for folks outside of Toronto and NY, Focals is heading off on a pop-up tour. You can check out the tour dates and locations here.

Why

“Why?” is perhaps the toughest question to answer when it comes to the Focals. The goal, as outlined by the company, is to keep you connected to the digital world without taking you out of the real world. In short, stop looking down at your phone.

That said, Focals also take away the option. When your phone rings, or even when your Apple Watch buzzes, you have a choice to make: look down, or ignore. When you’re wearing the Focals, that decision is eliminated.

For this reason, I feel like this product is meant for early adopters and folks who enjoy being ultra-connected to the digital world. If you’re already addicted to the sweet chime of your phone, the Focals may very well keep you more connected to the real world, and potentially save your neck from some stiffness. But if you do well to live in the real world and don’t appreciate the constant flow of notifications to your phone, the Focals likely won’t help you maintain that separation.

There are also some minor issues with the Focals themselves. The Ring isn’t super comfortable, particularly when typing on a computer (something most of us spend hours each day doing). The Ring also seems like something that would be very easy to lose or break — this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (For now, North is replacing broken Rings for free.)

With the Focals themselves, I’d like to be clear when I say that I was pleasantly surprised with the overall experience. The UI is pleasant to look at, and the little chime of a notification that whispers in your ear is most certainly addictive.

However, I found my eyes getting tired after more than an hour wearing the Focals. Using the Focals means that you’re constantly changing the focus of your eyes from close to far away, which can be tiring. Moreover, if the glasses shift a bit on your face, the text of the notification can become fuzzy, making the experience even more tiring.

Plus, the glasses are built to bend halfway through the arms, as opposed to where the arms meet the frames. This means you can’t hang the Focals off the front of your shirt, which is an admittedly minor gripe, but it bugged me throughout the review process.

Add to that the fact that Focals start at $600 and this product is really for technophiles. For now.

North is on the right track. The company is constantly developing new features that are released each week — they recently launched Google Fit support to check your steps, as well as language lessons to brush up on your French during your walk to work. And they’ve started with the right priorities in mind. The Focals are fine looking glasses, and in general, the tech works. Now it’s about refinement.

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The Looking Glass Pro might be the weirdest all-in-one PC ever

Posted by | augmented reality, Gaming, hardware, Looking Glass Factory, Virtual reality | No Comments

All-in-one PCs have adopted some pretty odd designs over the years, but I’ve never seen one quite like this.

The Looking Glass Pro is an all-in-one gaming PC that’s focused on one thing, visualizing 3D content on its bizarre lenticular display that makes you feel like you’re staring into a glass box filled with pixels. The embedded 4K display renders dozens of potential views and pipes them out as lower-res slices through some bizarre lens wizardry so that users can see the onscreen content in volumetric 60fps 3D without needing glasses.

You can get a better sense of how exactly this looks from a video that the company tweeted out.

With #AWE2019 fast approaching, a couple of exciting announcements coming your way! Numero 1⃣: Today, we launched the Looking Glass Pro, an all-in-one solution designed specifically for businesses seeking a turnkey holographic display solution https://t.co/IkKe6cFicf pic.twitter.com/0kGGoVxHzp

— Looking Glass Factory 🔜 #AWE2019 Booth 705 (@LKGGlass) May 28, 2019

This isn’t the first product from Brooklyn-based Looking Glass Factory, but it is a culmination of all their weirder efforts to date.

Last year, the company raised nearly $850,000 in a crowdfunding campaign for its Looking Glass display, focusing the market for the display technology on creators looking to visualize 3D graphics and objects without having to toss on a VR headset. The company has disclosed nearly $14 million in funding.

With the new hardware, the startup is aiming to court some enterprise customers to shove one of these front-and-center on their conference table displays, hoping that the new design can streamline the process of showcasing 3D content. Looking Glass Factory is courting everyone who has ever brought a VR headset to showcase 3D content. The startup argues that their solution showcases glorious 3D but doesn’t require a headset, and can showcase multiple views to multiple people at once.

Copyright 2006 Phoebe Cheong, all rights reserved

The hardware is focused on ensuring that you can cue up content and live-render it as users manipulate the content or change views with the on-board touch controls. The Looking Glass Pro integrates an Intel NUC 8 VR mini PC running Windows as well as a 7″ secondary touch panel screen that flips out from the side to make navigating the PC a bit easier, though that process still seems to be a tad janky at the moment.

The whole premise for this thing is weird and cool but also super expensive. The original 15.6″ Looking Glass display was $3,000; this thing is $6,000. The workstation is available for pre-order now and ships in July.

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Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, Mobile, niantic, TC | No Comments

When your game tops 100 million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokémon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world-based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, as Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure, but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things — chests, mobs and encounters — are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, as the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but, you get the idea

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press; we got to experience a couple of build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft, verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone.)

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokémon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokémon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing, but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually, but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it shouldn’t be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t, like, take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The HoloLens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

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Reality Check: The marvel of computer vision technology in today’s camera-based AR systems

Posted by | animation, AR, ar/vr, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, Column, Computer Vision, computing, Developer, digital media, Gaming, gif, Global Positioning System, gps, mobile phones, neural network, starbucks, TC, Virtual reality, VR | No Comments
Alex Chuang
Contributor

Alex Chuang is the Managing Partner of Shape Immersive, a boutique studio that helps enterprise and brands transform their businesses by incorporating VR/AR solutions into their strategies.

British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.

AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.

  1. How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
  2. How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
  3. How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)

Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)

Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rover-curiosity-in-buckskin-selfie/

When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.

A VIO system is made out of two parts.

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With new raise, Unity could nearly double valuation to $6 billion

Posted by | augmented reality, Gaming, John Riccitiello, TC, unity-technologies, Virtual reality | No Comments

Unity Technologies, the company behind one of the world’s most popular game engines, could nearly double its reported valuation in a new round of funding.

The company has filed to raise up to $125 million in Series E funding according to a Delaware stock authorization filing uncovered by Prime Unicorn Index and reviewed by TechCrunch. If Unity closes the full authorized raise it will hold a valuation of $5.96 billion.

A Unity spokesperson confirmed the details of the document.

The SF company builds developer tools that allow game-makers to build titles and deploy them on consoles, mobile and PC. More than half of all new games are built using the platform. Customers pay for the platform per developer once their projects reach a certain scale.

Unity’s competitors include Fortnite-maker Epic Games, which has been able to rapidly acquire startups and game studios in the past two years fueled by the profits of their blockbuster hit.

Unity most recently closed $400 million in Series D funding led by Silver Lake, a “big chunk” of which went toward purchasing the shares of longtime employees and earlier investors. The round left the company’s valuation north of $3 billion. The company, founded in 2003, has raised more than $600 million to date.

The company’s previous backers include Sequoia, DFJ Growth and Silver Lake Partners.

Earlier this year, Cheddar reported that Unity was eyeing a 2020 IPO, though the company did not comment on the report.

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Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, conference call, data privacy, data security, dating, Developer, eCommerce, Enterprise, Entertainment, events, Extra Crunch Conference Call, Facebook, Facebook Dating, facebook groups, Facebook Marketplace, facebook messenger, Facebook Watch, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, investment opportunities, marketplace, Media, Oculus, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, privacy, Security, Social, Startups, TC, transcript, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, WhatsApp | No Comments

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

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Nine lessons on how Niantic reached a $4B valuation

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, best practices, Customer Service, EC-1, Gaming, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, john hanke, Mobile, niantic, Phil Keslin, pokemon, Pokémon Go, product, scaling, social networks, Startups, TC, user growth, Virtual reality | No Comments

We’ve captured much of Niantic’s ongoing story in the first three parts of our EC-1, from its beginnings as an “entrepreneurial lab” within Google, to its spin-out as an independent company and the launch of Pokémon GO, to its ongoing focus on becoming a platform for others to build augmented reality products upon.

It’s not an origin story that serves as an easily replicable blueprint — but if we zoom out a bit, what’s to be learned?

A few key themes stuck with me as I researched Niantic’s story so far. Some of them – like the challenges involved with moving millions of users around the real world – are unique to this new augmented reality that Niantic is helping to create. Others – like that scaling is damned hard – are well-understood startup norms, but interesting to see from the perspective of an experienced team dealing with a product launch that went from zero to 100 real quick.

The reading time for this article is 21 minutes (5,125 words).

Build on top of what works best

Everything Niantic has built so far is an evolution of what the team had built before it. Each major step on Niantic’s path has a clear footprint that precedes it; a chunk of DNA that proved advantageous, and is carried along into the next thing.

Looking back, it’s a cycle we can see play out on repeat: build a thing, identify what works about it, trim the extra bits, then build a new thing from that foundation.

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RosieReality, a Swiss startup using AR to get kids interested in robotics and programming, scores $2.2M seed

Posted by | augmented reality, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, Redalpine Capital, RosieReality, Startups, TC | No Comments

RosieReality, a startup out of Zürich developing consumer augmented reality experiences, has raised $2.2 million in seed funding led by Redalpine. Other backers include Shasta Ventures, Atomico partners Mattias Ljungman and Siraj Khaliq (both of whom invested in a personal capacity) and Akatsuki Entertainment Fund.

Founded in early 2018, RosieReality’s first AR experience is designed to ignite kids interested in robotics and programming. The smart phone camera-based app is centred around “Rosie,” a cute AR robot that inhabits a “Lego-like” modular AR world within which you and your friends are tasked with building and solving world-size 3D puzzles.

The kicker: to solve these 3D-puzzle games requires “programming” Rosie to move around the augmented reality world.

“By developing Rosie the Robot, we created the first interactive and modular world that exclusively lives in your camera feed,” RosieReality co-founder and CEO Selim Benayat tells TechCrunch. “We use this new computational platform to enable kids to creatively build, solve and share world-sized puzzle games with friends and families – much like modern-day Lego.”

Describing Rosie the Robot’s typical users as teens that “like the challenge of intricately crafted puzzles,” Benayat says part of the inspiration behind the AR game was remembering how as a kid he used to love spending time building stuff and then inviting friends over to show them what he’d built.

“Kids today are not that different,” he argues, before adding that AR makes it possible for them to have the same tangible and contextual sensation while giving them a bigger outlet for their creativity.

“We see the camera as a tool to teach and enable [the] next generation of creators. For us gaming is the ultimate creative, social and educational outlet,” says the RosieReality CEO.

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Harry Potter, the Platform, and the Future of Niantic

Posted by | Apps, AR, augmented reality, DigiLens, EC-1, Escher Reality, Gaming, geolocation, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, john hanke, matrix mill, Mobile, niantic, Phil Keslin, Pokémon Go, Startups, TC, Virtual reality, VR | No Comments

What is Niantic? If they recognize the name, most people would rightly tell you it’s a company that makes mobile games, like Pokémon GO, or Ingress, or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

But no one at Niantic really seems to box it up as a mobile gaming company. Making these games is a big part of what the company does, yes, but the games are part of a bigger picture: they are a springboard, a place to figure out the constraints of what they can do with augmented reality today, and to figure out how to build the tech that moves it forward. Niantic wants to wrap their learnings back into a platform upon which others can build their own AR products, be it games or something else. And they want to be ready for whatever comes after smartphones.

Niantic is a bet on augmented reality becoming more and more a part of our lives; when that happens, they want to be the company that powers it.

This is Part 3 of our EC-1 series on Niantic, looking at its past, present, and potential future. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. The reading time for this article is 24 minutes (6,050 words)

The platform play

After the absurd launch of Pokémon GO, everyone wanted a piece of the AR pie. Niantic got more pitches than they could take on, I’m told, as rights holders big and small reached out to see if the company might build something with their IP or franchise.

But Niantic couldn’t build it all. From art, to audio, to even just thinking up new gameplay mechanics, each game or project they took on would require a mountain of resources. What if they focused on letting these other companies build these sorts of things themselves?

That’s the idea behind Niantic’s Real World Platform. This platform is a key part of Niantic’s game plan moving forward, with the company having as many people working on the platform as it has on its marquee money maker, Pokémon GO.

There are tons of pieces that go into making things like GO or Ingress, and Niantic has spent the better part of the last decade figuring out how to make them all fit together. They’ve built the core engine that powers the games and, after a bumpy start with Pokémon GO’s launch, figured out how to scale it to hundreds of millions of users around the world. They’ve put considerable work into figuring out how to detect cheaters and spoofers and give them the boot. They’ve built a social layer, with systems like friendships and trade. They’ve already amassed that real-world location data that proved so challenging back when it was building Field Trip, with all of those real-world points of interest that now serve as portals and Pokéstops.

Niantic could help other companies with real-world events, too. That might seem funny after the mess that was the first Pokémon GO Fest (as detailed in Part II). But Niantic turned around, went back to the same city the next year, and pulled it off. That experience — that battle-testing — is valuable. Meanwhile, the company has pulled off countless huge Ingress events, and a number of Pokémon GO side events calledSafari Zones.” CTO Phil Keslin confirmed to me that event management is planned as part of the platform offering.

As Niantic builds new tech — like, say, more advanced AR or faster ways to sync AR experiences between devices — it’ll all get rolled into the platform. With each problem they solve, the platform offering would grow.

But first they need to prove that there’s a platform to stand on.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Niantic’s platform, as it exists today, is the result of years of building their own games. It’s the collection of tools they’ve built and rebuilt along the way, and that already powers Ingress Prime and Pokémon GO. But to prove itself as a platform company, Niantic needs to show that they can do it again. That they can take these engines, these tools, and, working with another team, use them for something new.

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