Niantic hopes its new technology will enable the next Pokémon Go

OOn Tuesday, Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, announced the rollout of a hyper-detailed card system that they hope will pave the way for the expanded use of augmented reality (AR) in everyday life. Niantic has been collecting spatial data from high-traffic public spaces in cities around the world for years, and now it wants to give these immersive and accurate maps to developers to create their own games, history lessons, and audiovisual experiences. However, some privacy experts are concerned about the emergence of AR and what it means for public oversight.

AR consists of digital elements that appear in real-life environments, which can be viewed through your phone or smart glasses (such as the defunct Google Glass). For example, Instagram and Snapchat filters allow you to change your appearance, voice, or the surrounding landscape.

Niantic CEO John Hanke believes AR will be incorporated into everyday life in increasingly sophisticated ways. In the future, for example, through smart glasses, you can see directions to your destination on the street as you walk across it; or you could look at a construction site and see its history and past architectural incarnations.

His company’s new 3D map allows developers to see exactly how their users move through the world and view their environment, which Hanke says is an important step towards “opening this science fiction reality that we dream of. We can start with putting virtual things in the world that are attached to the right parts of that physical world,” he said in an interview.

The map was created by collecting over a hundred million video clips from Niantic players (who have chosen to share their screens), developers and surveyors. The most developed parts of the map are in densely populated city centers where they collected the most data, including San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and New York City.

Independent AR developers can now access the technology – which starts in beta for free – on a platform called Lightship. There they can create virtual animals that hide behind park benches; plaques for public statues that delve into forgotten histories; or mobile characters “painted on the ground showing the path to your destination,” Hanke says.

One of the first projects created with the technology of the new card is a collaboration with the artist JR and the art company Superblue called JR Reality. JR is known for pasting giant photos of people in public places. Niantic’s technology allows users to add their own JR-esque portraits or voice messages to specific public locations, in addition to those of everyone else who has made the same pilgrimage.

“Have you ever passed someone on the street and wondered what their story is?” JR writes that in a statement. “It’s time to get out there and explore, and reconnect and show the world your face again. Together we can tell the world your story and meet the amazing people who live in your city.”

Hanke, meanwhile, is particularly excited about how the card could improve Niantic’s flagship product: Pokémon Go. A viral commercial that introduced the game in 2015 showed people watching the animated character Mewtwo hover over Times Square, but most people watch the game through animated images on their phones. “This map paves the way for that gigantic Mewtwo above the crowd: to have the shared experience of many people looking at the same thing from different points of view,” says Hanke. “This is what we’ve been dreaming about since the beginning.”

Pokémon Go was arguably the first successful commercial use of AR. It was downloaded more than 500 million times in its first year, with aspiring trainers hunting Pokémon all over the world. Jacob Navok, the CEO of Genvid Technologies and one of the leading thinkers in the field of metaverse, says Niantic’s pedigree means their new map will likely be a much sought-after tool for AR developers. “Releasing more, better and cheaper tools to third-party developers is key to the industry’s growth,” he wrote in an email to TIME. “Developers choosing Lightship do so in the knowledge that Niantic understands how to build products and not just APIs [programming code]†

As AR technology advances, many watchdogs have become concerned about its impact on privacy. They fear that companies like Niantic will collect an astonishing amount of information that is vulnerable to hacks, and that people’s movements could be tracked. “Every image an AR device captures is potentially one court order away from becoming a government tracking device,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. He points to search warrants that have collected footage from Amazon’s Alexa and Ring cameras. Cahn also thinks that geofence orders, where the police seek location data of each person in a specific location over a period of time, could be particularly threatening to AR users. (One of those injunctions, however, was just declared unconstitutional in Virginia.)

“It’s something we take very seriously,” said Kjell Bronder, a product lead for Lightship, Niantic’s developer platform, about privacy. For the contributions these players can upload [to the map]we are doing everything we can to anonymize in the background and make sure that a lot of this data is scrubbed.”

Niantic also releases its own social media platform: Campfire. The app will be map-based, where users will be able to see which other users are in a local area, message them, share content and organize events. “Our big thesis is that the metaverse is something that happens in the real world,” Hanke says.

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