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Pokémon maker Niantic takes big leap in 3D-mapping tech by buying 6D.ai startup

With the coming of AR glasses, the digital world will start to blend with the physical. 6D.ai’s 3D map creates a powerful link between the two.

Pokémon maker Niantic takes big leap in 3D-mapping tech by buying 6D.ai startup
[Image: PIRO4D/Pixabay]

Niantic’s 2016 hit game Pokémon Go let players see digital things carefully placed within the real world as seen through their smartphone camera. The game introduced many people to the concept of augmented reality. Now Niantic is buying 6D.ai, a small company with a vaunted technology for mapping the digital world to the real world for AR developers.

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Niantic has been working on its own 3D-mapping technology, but the addition of 6D.ai’s technology and people could push its efforts far down the road in terms of accuracy and completeness.

[Image: courtesy of Niantic]
6D.ai’s mapping technology crowdsources the views of smartphone cameras in the wild to form its 3D map of the world. Using 6D.ai’s map, developers can build apps containing digital images that are persistent—that is, linked to the same spots in the real world from one AR app session to the next, and for all users of the same app. The 6D.ai map also captures the depth of the camera’s view, allowing app developers to create digital content that can be hidden by aspects of the real world.

Now, that technology and visual data will be folded into Niantic’s 3D map of the world, called the Niantic Real World Platform.

That’s one part of what Niantic is buying. The other is 6D.ai’s people. Niantic says the “vast majority” of 6D.ai’s 16 full-time employees and contractors will be joining Niantic’s research and engineering teams. 6D.ai CEO and cofounder Matt Miesnieksis will become “adviser” to Niantic’s leadership team, a spokesperson tells me. Miesnieksis is also a founding partner at Super Ventures, which invests in AR startups. 6D.ai cofounder Victor Prisacariu will join Niantic’s team in London to continue his research and development work on the 3D-mapping technology.

The companies aren’t talking about the dollar value of the deal.

6D.ai has been working on 3D-mapping tech since its origins as a research project at Oxford University in the U.K. It became a private company in 2017. Niantic spun out of Google shortly after the search giant reorganized itself as a set of companies under the Alphabet parent in 2015.

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Niantic CEO and cofounder John Hanke says the next generation of AR games and other apps may depend on solid 3D mapping to create funner, cooler, and more convincing AR experiences. “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,” Hanke said in a blog post today.

“Imagine everyone, at the same time, being able to experience Pokémon habitats in the real world or watch dragons fly through the sky and land on buildings in real-time,” Hanke writes. “Imagine our favorite characters taking us on a walking tour of hidden city gems, or friends leaving personal notes for others to find later.”

Niantic has its own interest in building a 3D map for its own AR games, but, like 6D.ai, it also wants to license the map to third-party app developers for use in their own consumer and business AR experiences.

One reason this transaction is important is that we won’t be experiencing AR on smartphones forever. Niantic’s map will likely underpin new kinds of AR apps that we’ll experience through the lenses of tomorrow’s AR glasses, which Apple, Facebook, and (likely) other big-name tech companies are developing as we speak. Both Niantic and 6D.ai have partnership arrangements with Qualcomm, the company most likely to provide the chipsets used in future lightweight head-mounted displays.

Tomorrow’s AR glasses may popularize “spatial computing” and eventually send it mainstream. We may see a layer of digital content overlayed upon our view of the real world all day long. Some people, including myself, believe that an AR overlay we see in our glasses will eventually become the next user interface for our personal computing.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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