Niantic is mapping the world and warns about the future of augmented reality

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John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, began his Augmented World Expo speech talking about the metaverse, and how it conjures thoughts of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and The Matrix.

“In those fictional versions of the future, the world has become such a mess that people have to escape it into some sort of virtual reality where people live, work, and play,” says Hanke. “I would ask all of you: is that the future you imagine? Is that what you want for you? For your children? That’s not the future we believe will happen at Niantic.”

Niantic recently opened its platform to the public in a new software development package called Lightship Augmented Reality Developer’s Kit. The Lightship ARDK features many of the systems used to make their AR games, Pokemon Go and Pikmin Bloom. The company hopes access to their tools will aid developers in creating augmented reality content. To take that one step farther, Hanke announced today that Lightship ARDK will be getting access to what he calls the Niantic map.

“People have called it the grand challenge of AR — mapping the world. A persistent, shared interpretation of reality that we can address and anchor things to and bring all this multiplayer content and real-time mapping and understanding and really fuse it with the world. So that we can tailor experiences to very, very particular parts of the world. We have a version of that. We got it working now.”

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To demonstrate the map, Hanke shows off a new app from Niantic that combines real-world mapping with the concept of geocaching. Geocaching is a worldwide activity where people hide objects or notes and distribute the GPS coordinates to the public. It’s like a giant scavenger hunt. The new Niantic game works on the same concept but with AR objects instead. In the demo, one player places a card inside a nook below a statue. Other players can then search around the area and find the card.

Niantic Map, augmented reality, and the weight of responsibility

Once done with the mapping demonstration, Hanke shifts the conversation to a more serious note. “As excited as we are about the tech and what we can do with it, And as excited as we are about what developers around the world can build in AR, we recognize that this next phase of computing carries with it some big time responsibility.”

Returning to the earlier mentioned theme of sci-fi dystopia, Hanke warns about the dangers of less than scrupulous actors taking advantage of the world of AR. “Think about a wearable device that’s with you all day long. If it’s on your head, it probably knows where you’re looking most of the time. Maybe it knows about other things too, like your heart rate. You see a product or an advertisement, what happened to you physiologically? Did your heart rate go up? What if you see a person? Maybe your glasses recognize that specific person. What does your heart rate do? Did your pupils dilate when you see another person. What about your emotions? We’re getting pretty good at predicting that too. Thing is, this is not science fiction. Tech can do what I just described right now.”

After his warning, Hanke ended his keynote on a positive note, “to be clear I don’t think it has to turn out that way. It’s up to us but it doesn’t have to go in that direction. At Niantic we definitely see a future where we can collectively make the kinds of choices that use this tech in incredibly positive ways that reinforce the best of what the world has to offer. To draw people together, enable them to have fun and share experience. Ultimately to unite us, to unite people, human beings, rather than divide us.”

Lightship ARDK is available now, with Niantic map coming to their devkit next year.

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