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Niantic’s ‘Codename: Urban Legends’ wants to be the first great 5G AR game

The upcoming monster-battling game aims to utilize 5G’s high speed and low latency to go way beyond ‘Pokémon Go.’

Niantic’s ‘Codename: Urban Legends’ wants to be the first great 5G AR game
[Video: Courtesy of Niantic]
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The first experience meant to demonstrate that high-quality augmented reality games could be the killer app for 5G wireless networks is here.

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Last summer, Pokémon Go creator Niantic announced it was teaming up with an international roster of wireless carriers to expand the availability of high-quality AR experiences for 5G networks. Now, seven months later, some of those carriers’ customers can finally play a demo version of the first game to emerge from the alliance.

Dubbed Codename: Urban Legends, the demo was built on the same global location-based AR platform powering megahits like Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. The goal of the project is to showcase the attractiveness of high-quality AR games on the 5G networks of a subset of alliance partners—Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, and Globe Telecom.

Although Niantic isn’t yet saying when the full version of Codename: Urban Legends will be available, the release of the demo is an important milestone as the alliance moves toward a broader deployment of 5G-ready AR experiences. Each of the networks is doubtless eager to prove to customers that it’s worth paying for access to the next generation of wireless network.

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“Many of today’s 4G applications will simply work better or evolve in 5G,” Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, told me last year when the alliance was first revealed. At the time Rubin said he believed AR might be the only “pillar” technology that could “fundamentally change how we interact with the world if it can gain access to the high-bandwidth, low-latency, and eventually broad coverage of 5G.”

Since then, he’s concluded that cloud gaming may also be a winner on 5G networks. Still, Rubin now says, “AR has the most transformative, long-term potential in driving consumers’ interest.”

Niantic’s alliance with 5G carriers might hint at where it will go with its hardware efforts.

And that’s exactly what Niantic is hoping to show the world. As its CEO, John Hanke, said last year, the goal of the alliance is to marry the edge-computing element of the carriers’ 5G networks with Niantic’s platform in order to let millions of people play the advanced games and other applications that will eventually be available. According to Niantic, alliance partners’ 5G networks will deliver one-tenth the latency of 4G networks as well as the ability for 10 times as many people to play games concurrently. In short, the company is banking much of its future on the idea that AR gaming will eventually be 5G’s killer app.

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Codename: Urban Legends was designed to demonstrate the technology’s capabilities. It’s an immersive, social, multiplayer experience that tasks players with casting spells to battle monsters and save imperiled allies.

For now, 5G carrier customers will play Niantic’s experiences on smartphones and tablets, but the company has hinted at a logical path toward custom AR hardware optimized for 5G networks. In 2019, Niantic teamed up with Qualcomm on a reference design for AR glasses. A year and a half later, the company is clearly still focused on creating hardware like that, at least as evidenced by a Hanke tweet on Monday featuring a photo of one side of a pair of Niantic-branded AR glasses. It’s “exciting to see the progress we’re making to enable new kinds of devices that leverage our platform,” he wrote.

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While it’s too early to know for sure, Niantic’s alliance with 5G carriers might hint at where it will go with its hardware efforts. But if Niantic and its partners want to be the leaders in this technology race, they’ll have to fend off challenges from giants such as Google, Apple, and Facebook.

With initial titles like Codename: Urban Legends, Niantic is hoping to get a jump-start on those rivals and win the battle before it really begins. If people find the demo impressive, it can help to raise excitement, Rubin says. But, invoking the memory of one of technology’s most recent and infamous crash-and-burn tales, he cautions that there’s no guarantee of success. After all, he points out, “Magic Leap had several impressive demos.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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