Niantic Labs Raises $20 Million to Turn the World Into an Augmented Reality Playground

Pokemon Go
Courtesy of Niantic Labs

Just a few weeks after being spun out of Google as part of that company’s Alphabet reorganization, augmented reality startup Niantic Labs has raised $20 million in funding from Nintendo, the Pokemon Company and Google. The three investors have committed to chipping in another $10 million if Niantic Labs reaches some unannounced performance goals.

The Pokemon Company officially announced a partnership with Niantic Labs last month: Niantic will build a new augmented reality game called Pokemon Go that will allow players to catch Pokemons in the world around them. A smart phone app will direct them to real-world places, where they will be able to “capture” them as virtual objects.

“Augmented reality is about making reality more interesting,” said Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke during an interview this week. He went on to paint a scenario of teenagers being dragged along to run errands with their parents — but instead of being bored, they would be able to play the game in the mall, and unlock virtual content simply by visiting places and playing the game on location.

Pokemon Go will be released some time in 2016, and in addition to apps also make use of small Bluetooth wearable device that will alert players of the presence of Pokemons, and allow them to perform simple actions, whereever they go.

For a first look, check out this somewhat stylized promotional video below:

Niantic’s focus on cheap and existing technology stands in stark contrast to what other companies are doing in augmented reality, like Microsoft’s HoloLens and the work of Magic Leap, a highly-funded startup that is working on still-unannounced technology to overlay computer-generated images over people’s visual perception of the world.

Hanke said that there may be some application for this kind of augmented reality in the future, but he voiced concerns that it will take a long time for it to be in the hands of consumers. “We didn’t want to wait for that,” he quipped.

Niantic Labs was founded as a Google subsidiary in 2011. It released a first mobile app called Field Trip in 2012 that would alert users of historic buildings and other points of interest. Soon after, it released its first augmented reality game called Ingress, which prompts players to choose sides in an elaborate Sci-Fi narrative, and then tasks them with going out in the real world to achieve game objectives. Ingress apps have been downloaded more than 13 million times.

One of those Ingress players happened to be Tsunekazu Ishihara, the president and CEO of the Pokemon company. So when Google started to talk to the company about adding Pokemons to Google Maps for an elaborate April fool’s joke, the conversation quickly shifted to Niantic Labs and the potential for cooperation.

Speaking of which: Hanke said that Niantic Labs is in conversations with a number of additional companies about building augmented reality experiences, with some entertainment companies being interested as well. In the long run, Niantic Labs wants to give partners the tools to build their own apps and in turn enable hundreds, if not thousands of augmented reality experiences, said Hanke: “Our ultimate goal is to build a platform.”

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