Niantic sneaks 5G AR “Urban Legends”; what does it all mean?

“‘Augmented Reality: A Land Of Contrasts.’ In this essay, I will…”

Okay, no, not really, but let me highlight some interesting mixed signals. (It’s worth noting that these are strictly my opinions, not those of any current or past employer.)

Pokémon Go debuted almost exactly 5 years ago, and last year, even amidst a global pandemic that largely immobilized people, it generated its best revenue ever—more than a billion dollars in just the first 10 months of the year, bringing its then-total to more than $4 billion.

Having said that…

  • In the five years since its launch, what other location-based AR games (or AR games, period) have you seen really take off? Even with triple-A characters & brands, Niantic’s own Harry Potter title made a far smaller splash, and Minecraft Earth (hyped extensively at an Apple keynote event) is being shut down.
  • When I launched Pokémon Go last year (for the first time in years), I noticed that the only apparent change since launch was that AR now defaults to off. That is, Niantic apparently decided that monster-catching was easier, more fun, and/or less resource-intensive when done in isolation, with no camera overlay.
  • The gameplay remains extremely rudimentary—no use (at least that I could see) of fancy SLAM tracking, depth processing, etc., despite Niantic having acquired startups to enable just this sort of thing, showing demos three years ago.
  • Network providers & handset makers really, really want you to want 5G—but I’ve yet to see it prove to be transformative (even for the cloud-rendered streaming AR that my Google team delivered last year). Even when “real” 5G is available beyond a couple of urban areas, it’s hard to imagine a popular title being 5G-exclusive.

So does this mean I think location-based AR games are doomed? Well, no, as I claim zero prognostication-fu here. I didn’t see Pokémon Go coming, despite my roommate in Nepal (who casually mentioned that he’d helped found Google Earth—as one does) describing it ahead of launch; and given the way public interest in the app dropped after launch (see above), I’d never have guessed that it would be generating record revenue now—much less during a pandemic!

So, who knows: maybe Niantic & its numerous partners will figure out how to recapture lighting in a bottle. Here’s a taste of how they expect that to look:

If I had to bet on someone, though, it’d be Snap: they’ve been doing amazing site-specific AR for the last couple of years, and they’ve prototyped collaborative experiences built on the AR engine that hundreds of millions of people use every day; see below. Game on!

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