Niantic, the company behind games like “Pokemon Go,” “Ingress” and “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” began opening up its technology to third-party developers Wednesday, allowing them to build their own location-based augmented reality (AR) games and applications on top of its platform. Niantic is kickstarting these efforts with a $10 million fund for indie developers.
The company offered a first glimpse at the potential of its platform by revealing the winners of a developer contest it first announced last December. The contest’s winner was “Run to My Heart,” a game that encourages players to go on runs together, and save their non-exercising friends from being turned into potatoes. “We really couldn’t have made this game without the help of the Niantic real-world platform,” said game developer Jenny Xu.
The runner-ups included a game called “Wild Sanctuary” that lets players help endangered animals in AR, as well as an alternate and augmented reality game called “CryptOS” that turns players into hackers. Niantic didn’t announce when any of these titles will be available to the public.
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A screenshot from “Run to My Heart.”
Niantic isn’t quite opening up the floodgates for everyone yet; the company is still asking developers to apply for access to its real-world platform. And Niantic will continue to build its own games as well, and also work on improving existing titles.
To that end, Niantic also showed off advancements in its cross-platform AR technology Wednesday, detailing in videos how it has been able to improve on occlusion. In essence, this means that AR characters are now more realistically interacting with the world around them, which includes hiding behind corners and other objects.
Niantic also announced a new social AR feature coming to “Pokemon Go” in the coming months. Code-named “Buddy Adventure,” the feature will allow multiple players to view their favorite Pokemons in AR together, and pose with them for group selfies.
“Pokemon Go” players will also soon have the chance to suggest their own locations for pokestops and gyms, something that has been available to players of “Ingress” for some time. Hanke said that Ingress players had suggested 27 million such places to date, with Niantic ultimately adding 9.4 million to the game. Asked how the company would prevent abuse of the feature, he responded that the feature was only open to the most serious players who had reached level 40 within the game.
All these announcements may seem like a scattershot of improvements. Taken together, they do show that Niantic is aiming to build much more than just a handful of games. Instead, the company is effectively developing information layers anchored in the real world, which could one day power all kinds of applications for AR glasses and similar devices.
The potential for this became apparent with another initiative announced by Niantic Wednesday: The company is inviting small and medium businesses to participate in its sponsored locations program. Niantic has long allowed big chains like McDonalds and AT&T to operate sponsored Pokestops in the hopes of driving more foot traffic to their stores.
Starting in December, the same is available to mom-and-pop stores. Hanke said that this could help local businesses to compete with online retailers, calling it “the anti-Amazon.”
Niantic has long declared that it aims to build “an operating system for the world” with its platform. By opening up that platform to developers as well as small and medium businesses, the company seems to prepare for a future when that operating system could power all kinds of applications, including real-world commerce. Hanke hinted as much, telling journalists Tuesday that he had high hopes for the work of third-party developers. “We‘d like people to cross into non-game applications,” he said.