Niantic acquires 3D mapping company 6D.ai

IDC analyst Lewis Ward believes the deal could result in more robust single-player AR content while we endure the COVID-19 pandemic.

Niantic, the developer behind augmented reality powerhouse Pokémon Go, has announced the acquisition of 3D spatial mapping company 6D.ai. Together, the two plan to build a 3D map of the world in an effort to deliver new “planet-scale AR experiences,” and offer a platform open to all developers, according to the announcement.

“From the beginning, we set out to infuse our daily lives and routines with a bit of fun and adventure by building an augmented world that parallels the physical,” Niantic’s announcement reads. “This bold pursuit requires significant advancements in AR technology that can only be made possible with an accurate and constantly updated 3D map of the real world. Now, we’ll be able to leverage 6D.ai’s deep expertise and significant breakthroughs in AR research and engineering to further our ongoing work in support of our mission.”

6D.ai began life in 2017 in the Active Vision Lab at Oxford University where the team of developers and researchers developed tools focused on “3D reconstruction and AR persistence.”

“We are extremely proud to join Niantic after three years of taking on the most difficult computer vision software problems so that AR experiences could realistically interact with the physical and digital worlds,” 6D.ai CEO Matt Miesnieks said in a blog post. “Now joining Niantic will provide us more reach, strengthen our resources, and bring together some of the best minds in both AR software development and research. The combination of our teams is a major step for the AR industry as we get even closer toward building the 3D map of the world.”

For Lewis Ward, research director of gaming at analyst group IDC, this deal represents an opportunity for Niantic to further capitalize on AR tech, even if the acquisition isn’t quite as substantial as it may seem.

“This isn’t meant to be an insult at all to the 6D.ai tech or team, but it’s not a huge acquisition on Niantic’s part that’s going to have a big impact on Pokémon Go or the company’s other efforts right away,” Ward told GameDaily. “I think there’s a medium and long-term potential impact here.”

Medium-term, which Ward specified as sometime in 2021, Niantic could potentially utilize 6D.ai’s tech to refine the former’s in-home experiences. This prediction is timely, and is predicated on the continuing impact of the current state of affairs.

“I suspect Pokémon Go’s [monthly active user] base has shrunk dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread shelter in place orders from governments,” Ward said. “With 6D.ai’s 3D depth-mapping tech, it seems to me that Niantic is positioned to make solo indoor activities much more engaging and challenging, and I noticed a recent update already moved in that direction.” 

Niantic recently changed parts of the game to make it more indoor-friendly. The end result, Ward posited, could be a more substantial in-home single-player experience for Pokémon Go. In the long-term, around 2022 or so, Ward said that 6D.ai’s tech will help Niantic refine the multiplayer aspects of Pokémon Go by way of 3D depth maps.

“Once these 3D depth maps have a lot of detail, it appears the relative position of two players’ phones can be known with a lot of more precision, and that could be used to make live PvP trainer battles more dynamic,” Ward said. “That seems a logical longer-term use case to me. Of course, the same tech could also be paying dividends in an enterprise context and so on in the same timeframe.”

Like nearly all sectors of business, the games industry is being forced to adjust to a post-coronavirus world. It appears that Pokémon Go has been able maintain its momentum during the crisis, though. In fact, it’s thriving; according to mobile analytics group Sensor Tower, the game saw a massive 66.7% growth in global revenue during the week beginning Monday, March 16th. During that week, which is roughly when shelter-in-place policies started taking effect in the US, Pokémon Go brought in almost $23 million, making it the best week for the game in 2020 so far. In terms of downloads, Pokémon Go saw a 64.3% increase in early March, with 1.6 million first-time installs.

Regardless, Ward remains pessimistic.

“Niantic has to pivot away from what’s been its main calling card to date: delivering great games like Pokémon Go that are highly social and are designed to get you out of the house and on the move to public hotspots,” Ward explained. “That’s all been clamped down and may stay that way for months. It’s a perfect storm aimed at what Niantic has done best, so I bet they’re scrambling to develop a plan-B, which is solo or, at best, co-op play indoors.”

Still, Niantic’s acquisition of 6D.ai illustrates that it is remaining ambitious in the face of a global pandemic. Pokémon Go was built on social concepts, but now it’s being forced to adapt to a self-isolated consumer base. It will be interesting to see how the team at Niantic leverages 6D.ai in this regard.

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