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Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke on AR, Computer Vision and the Future of Pokemon Go

Niantic Labs May Build a Pokemon
Courtesy of Niantic Labs

Pokemon Go is alive and well, and will be for years to come, said Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke during an interview on the sidelines of the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ.D Live conference in Laguna Beach, Calif. Tuesday. “Pokemon Go has the potential to be a 20-year franchise,” he said.

To get there, Niantic Labs plans to not only add more smarts to the game, but also eventually launch on augmented reality (AR) glasses. The San Francisco-based startup has been experimenting internally with a variety of hardware platforms, and Hanke hinted at a possibility to launch on Magic Leap’s upcoming mixed reality headset.

“There could be an opportunity for us to build an app for that device,” he said, adding that the first implementations of the game on headsets may not include all the features of the mobile app.

Niantic Labs  has been credited with being one of the pioneers of phone-based AR, thanks to a feature that superimposes Pokemon characters over a camera view of the real world. However, Hanke actually downplayed the aspect of the game. “The actual AR part of Pokemon Go is not that sophisticated,” he said. “It’s 5% of the experience.”

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Phone-based AR has been back in the spotlight with Apple’s recent introduction of ARKit, which allows developers to build more sophisticated AR apps for iPhones and iPads. Hanke still called ARKit, as well as Google’s ARCore, stepping-stones towards a glass- or headset-based future.

He also suggested that bigger advances for games like Pokemon Go and similar apps will come from computer vision, with its ability to recognize objects, and then serve up information or experiences related to those objects. “That technology is just advancing at a ridiculous pace,” he said, quoting shopping as well as mass transit as some other use cases.

As for Pokemon Go, Hanke said that Niantic Labs had a couple of major updates in store for the next few months. For instance, the game will soon incorporate more of what’s going on in the world. The company also plans to hold additional events, which Hanke described as great ways to keep existing users happy, and grow virally in new markets. “That just really solidifies the core,” he said.