Niantic, the augmented reality platform that develops games like Pokémon GO, has raised $300 million from Coatue and valued the company at $9 billion. The San Francisco-based startup, which initially sprang from Google, will use this money to build what it calls the “real-world metaverse.”
Back in August, Niantic founder and CEO John Hanke referred to the metaverse — at least the one that binds us to VR headsets, as in “Ready Player One” — as a “dystopian nightmare.” Unlike Facebook, which changed its company name to Meta to signify its investment in VR technology, Niantic aims to develop technology that brings people closer to the outside world. Earlier this month, Niantic unveiled its Lightship AR Developer Kit (ARDK), which makes AR game development tools publicly available for free to anyone with a basic understanding of the Unity game engine.
“At Niantic, we believe that people are happiest when their virtual world leads them to a physical one,” Hanke said at the time. “Unlike a sci-fi metaverse, a real metaverse will use technology to enhance our experience of the world as we’ve known it for thousands of years.”
The funding will help expand the ARDK, which has already been used by companies such as Coachella, Historic Royal Palaces, Universal Pictures, SoftBank, Warner Music Group and the PGA of America to create augmented reality experiences. So instead of using technology like VR headsets — which are still inaccessible to much of the population — AR projects mostly use smartphones to encourage people to explore their outdoor environments. For example, you could walk past the same mural every day, but in Pokémon GO, a user-generated Pokéstop description might tell you what that mural actually represents. Niantic says tens of millions of people play Niantic’s games every month and have walked more than 10.9 billion miles in their games since launch.
“Niantic is building a platform for AR based on a 3D map of the world that we believe will play a critical role in the next transition in computing,” said Matt Mazzeo, General Partner at Coatue. “We are excited to partner with Niantic as we see this infrastructure supporting a real world metaverse and enabling the next evolution of the Internet.”
The VR metaverse may be “dystopian” in Hanke’s eyes, but like any technology, AR isn’t without its problems. Niantic’s latest game, Pikmin Bloom, is designed around walking, which can be alienating for older or disabled players. Pokémon GO has a community of disabled players, but they had to speak out about how certain minor in-game tweaks can make the game much more accessible to people with limited mobility.
Still, Niantic’s vision offers an alternative to Meta’s headset-dependent plans. Pokémon GO continues to be a huge success — it made more than $1 billion in 2020 and is already on track to surpass those sales this year, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower. Not all of its games are loved equally — the company recently announced it will be shutting down Harry Potter: Wizards Unite after in-app consumer spending and global installs fell 57% year over year. But if independent developers get their hands on Niantic’s Lightship ARDK, we’ll see how far the concept of a “real-world metaverse” can reach.