Niantic: The Next Disney & AR Resorts

"Issue": 048

It’s the Summer before my senior year at Penn. I’m smoking weed on the roof of my friend’s building in Bushwick. Pokemon Go launches. It crashes a couple times, but then I walk all the way to my apartment in South Williamsburg catching Pokemon the entire way there. Every corner I pass, others are doing the same. Parents with their kids out at Midnight to other young twenty-somethings, that I assumed at the time, were equally high as me. Brooklyn.

For the entirety of that first month, one would think that racism was completely solved. Kind of like early American Idol when the country voted for their first Black president, Ruben Studdard.

Churches, converted to Gyms, became community outposts again. You would hear from down the block a cheer as a group caught a rare Pokemon. The mystical world, saved for my Gameboy Advance screen. Had transcended into the real world. Perhaps, in probably the largest global LARP’ing event ever, we were all Pokemon Trainers together.

How to play Pokémon Go when everyone's stuck inside | Ars Technica

When I think of Disney, I think of the immersion of a world. I walk through the gates, and suddenly what was once held on the living room screen or relegated to my imagination… has become the same warmth and tangibility of a hug. The same could be said for the Pokemon Center in Times Square.

This isn’t about comparing character IP (or partnering around IP in Niantic’s case) for me, as much as it is to think about the future of immersion in both tomorrow’s technological and cultural landscape.

Growing up in the Poconos, very much feels like any Pokemon region. A grouping of small towns both near and seemingly far. Playfully scenic landscapes. And incredibly accessible. You can come here for a couple of reasons, but nothing seems to beat the extended resort stays, all of your friends working across the various mountains. This is what started me on this question of the future of Niantic.

Today I started a South Korean sci-fi series “Memories of the Alhambra”, where the premise is the CEO of an AR contact lens company is trying to buy a new AR game from a cryptic, young engineer. In the game, the sleepy city of Granada is transformed by this new digital layer. A bar’s bathroom becomes the spawning point for a starter weapon… and it was here that I was reminded of something I wrote a long time ago about Pokemon Go and “trans-reality gaming”.

Without a certain density of play, the competition within trans-reality gaming shifts from the other participants —> to the obstruction of the non-player. New York’s landscape, that makes it so enticing for a massive AR game, also becomes the very thing that makes it so unfeasible.

Shared immersion is one of the most intensely human things we search for. It is the nature of work, university, religion, and sport. Both the finite and infinite game. An understanding of roles and centerpieces. However, what we also know is that the nature of the crowd is also the longing for release. The crowd must have release in order to reconvene in search of the same sensation. This is the other unnatural piece of trans-reality gaming. There are few formal mechanisms to the start and end of experience. I feel no dispersion, without density I feel no crowd, and the idea of returning becomes ever more abstract without my increasing participation of imagination.

It’s the top of August. The kids go back to school in September. Work is at the Summer slow down. There’s three more weeks left to the season. The kids are about to be juniors and seniors in high school, and they are too old for Disney. If you’re being honest with yourself, you’re too old for Disney too. Where do you want to go?

Enter: The AR Resort

The resort as an entertainment mechanism is incredibly similar to gaming. It has cultural cache and revolves around 3 primaries: disconnect, play, socialize.

Continuing the analogous nature of the two, we build associations across separate properties as long as they are by the same parent. “Oh this is a Wynn resort, we like those.” “Oh this is by the same creators as Journey, we’ll like this.” The overarching brand is a guarantee towards the quality of future and repeated experience. And so we go back to The Atlantis for the third time, knowing we can let the kids go crazy in the water park for the entire day and they’ll make their way back for our next family meal.

Niantic has this groundwork built. Following Pokemon Go with Harry Potter. Not diving deep into the metrics based performance of each game, but instead the understanding that “Oh, the same people that built this AR Harry Potter game also built Pokemon Go” — starts to build the experiential association of who is delivering these experiences… in short, the Disney magic.

Is it crazy to think that the shift of play at a resort could move from snowboarding or water rides —> an immersive, persistent, AR world game? I don’t think so. If anything, it’s far more powerful of an idea.

  • Each season could be properly new… compare that to building a new water ride at Atlantis or a new ski trail on the mountain.

  • Any NPC presents itself as the best job a high schooler can have. “What did you do over the summer?” “Oh I was the 7th gym boss.” “Shit… that’s tight.”

  • Even beyond high schoolers, it opens up the cosplay influencer’s economy even wider.

  • Local economies create more variety than the season they are known for.

  • The immersion formula of (play density of the location) x (technology) substantially improves & has a focused path forward — improving the technology. With the density of play already improving one of the core problem of trans-reality gaming in my opinion.

This last point, the path of improving the technology. Well, luckily I tweeted that I would write this newsletter and that caught the one and only Matthew Ball’s attention…

Matt’s question is half of the technological question to ask Niantic.

For the sake of me not extending this piece to absurd lengths, let’s all agree that we will have base AR glasses in 2-3 years & actual decent/fun ones in 5.

People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.

— Alan Kay

What genuinely worries me for the Niantic story is the conflicting reports around their consumer AR glasses ambitions. We have the 2019 Venture Beat story around collaborations with Qualcomm on AR glasses butttttt then Megan Quinn said in a recent Protocol Interview that Niantic won’t be be building its own hardware. Which I suppose is not to say that they wouldn’t collaborate? not sure…

There are plenty of serious software companies that don’t produce their own hardware, but I do feel everyone serious about the AR future is at least willing to fail at building their own hardware.

Apple. Snap. Facebook. Microsoft. Google (are they trying again?). And plenty others.

I don’t have an answer to Matt’s question. I think that our knee-jerk reaction is to hope they are closer to Epic’s Unreal than Pixar’s RenderMan. However, this also hinges on the framing and what they provide to the overall ecosystem.

Is it terrible to end up the AR games Pixar? Collaborating with other huge partners like Pokemon and Harry Potter to bring these experiences to Apple Glasses & other providers? Not at all…

I think, what we can all see, is that Niantic could have a larger future than that. And it would be incredibly exciting for Real World to be Unreal + a headset that matches those software ambitions.

According to their website, they have plans to open their platform for other AR creators throughout this year, including a fund to support them. So I’m sure we will have more answers here soon.

AR's Future is Glasses, Not Phones, Says Niantic CEO - WSJ

Some closing thoughts, other than the fact that John Hanke looks eerily similar to Peter Gregory from Silicon Valley…

  • I’m not going to be too prescriptive on the form that AR Resorts might take. They could be Niantic owned, they could be franchises. I don’t really care about the business logistics, as much as the form factor that reduces some of the burden around trans-reality gaming.

  • Perhaps Disney is the wrong abstraction. While writing this piece I started to feel that any game, with enough player density, and a proper digital currency component — could make any small town a sort of Vegas. Again the primary goal is a sense of coming into this location to play.

  • Let’s say Niantic actually doesn’t want to build hardware, then what? Well… someone who does should buy them. Assuming their Real World Platform is leaning towards Unreal… pushing the capabilities of the software with the capabilities of the hardware is what will make breakthrough experiences. Who should buy them? If you want a more diverse corporate AR landscape… Snap.

  • The one thing I did not touch in this newsletter is the massive identity play/experimentation that comes with this subject. I think resorts play well into this… a space to be a little more free, where you create your own backstory as you enter the space… the nature of the disconnect for some.

Even as I’m stopping myself from writing more, I realize the pandora’s box that I just opened. There are many things to challenge in this piece, but at the core I felt that the narrative around the next Disney was being sooooooo owned by Epic and Roblox. I wanted to extend the conversation, that I wasn’t seeing, toward the question of what happens when it’s structured as more of a resort or the entire economy of a small town… this I think was compelling for me as I think about reinvigorating local economies.

In “What Technology Wants”, Kevin Kelly talks about technology reducing & redistributing mass. So often this redistribution takes place through the supporting infrastructure and not the primary interaction, which remains digital. This idea, and I think one of the promises of highly experiential AR, is perhaps redistributing mass towards our interactions with each other enabled by breakthrough technologies.

I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.

Thanks so much for giving me your attention. I hope it was worth it, if not… unsubscribing will not hurt my feelings, and will give you back time you literally cannot have back.

Much love.