Three years after Pokémon Go introduced hundreds of millions of people to augmented reality, its creator Niantic launched a new mobile game on Friday that brings a touch of Harry Potter magic into the world of muggles.
Like Pokémon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite — which was released in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand on Friday — blends the physical and the digital, using a smartphone camera to layer the wizarding world over the real one.
“The AR market and the technology is evolving super fast,” said John Hanke, chief executive of Niantic, which was valued at nearly $4bn in a financing earlier this year.
Mr Hanke said the game had benefited from a leap in smartphone processors, cameras and displays and from the investment Niantic has made into the AR engine that underpins both games.
The animated characters and digital objects that appear in Wizards Unite “are much more solid and real-feeling than the early days of Pokémon Go”, said Mr Hanke. “This is the state of the art, as of today.”
While Pokémon Go was a breakthrough, the release of Wizards Unite and, later this year, of Microsoft’s Minecraft Earth app, which will let players drop pixelated creations from the popular game into real locations, heralds a new generation of AR experiences that can fulfil the technology’s vast potential.
The biggest companies and investors in Silicon Valley are all betting AR will eventually become a catalyst for the end of the smartphone era — to be superseded by smart glasses and what Mr Hanke calls “ubiquitous computing”.
“We believe that AR is going to be one of the most significant platforms of the next five years,” said David Jones, founder of You & Mr Jones, a marketing tech group that invested in Niantic in 2015. He said Wizards Unite “is another stepping stone showing the evolution of AR and its potential”.
Personal devices are increasingly able to capture and visualise the world down to centimetre-level detail and recognise the objects they “see”, using AI techniques. Apple, Google, Facebook and Snap, as well as several start-ups, are racing with Niantic to seize this new opportunity.
“Neural networks until recently were something you ran in the cloud on huge data sets,” explained Matt Miesnieks, chief executive of AR start-up 6D.ai. “In the last couple of years, these networks can now run in real time on the phone. That’s changing the ability of the device to understand the world.”
Despite the technological progress, no other AR app has yet created the kind of sensation that Pokémon Go did back in 2016. The Nintendo-backed app has been downloaded more than 1bn times in total and generated more than $2bn in revenue, according to Niantic.
“Pokémon Go remains the top-performing AR app,” said Danielle Levitas, analyst at mobile research group App Annie. But she predicted that Wizards Unite would make $100m in its first 30 days.
While Niantic is the leader in standalone AR games, the technology has become embedded in a feature of a variety of ecommerce apps — from previewing new sofas with Ikea, Argos or Wayfair, to sizing up shoes from Nike and Adidas. This week YouTube launched new video ads that let viewers try on virtual make-up from MAC Cosmetics.
Many of these early experiments are made possible by Apple and Google’s AR tool kits for app developers, ARKit and ARCore, which have been integrated into iPhones from 2017 and Android smartphones since last year.
“The world changed when ARKit came out,” said Anjney Midha, who co-founded AR start-up Ubiquity6 in 2017. “A billion people now have the entire computing power of a full-on Hollywood VFX [visual effects] production house sitting in their pocket. It’s insane.”
Snap and Facebook have also offered tools for developers to play with their apps’ cameras. More than 400,000 AR experiences have been created using Snapchat’s Lens Studio since it was launched 18 months ago, which have collectively been viewed by its users 15bn times.
While Snapchat has helped to popularise AR through its selfie lenses, it is now trying to extend the ability to add playful digital features to everything from landmark buildings such as Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower to cats and dogs, letting pet owners place digital glasses or hats on their furry friends.
The applications might sound silly but the technology involved is seriously complex, according to Qi Pan, senior manager of research engineering at Snap.
“We need to build advanced machine learning algorithms that are able to recognise any breed of cat or dog in an image, and this needs to be done extremely fast,” he said. “To build the effect, we need to know where the eyes, nose and mouth are and what sort of expression potentially the cat is making, to lock content on to their face.” Dogs are harder than cats, he added, because of the greater variety of breeds.
Snap is also among several companies investing in what they see as the next big leap forward: the so-called “AR cloud”, which would allow digital creations, such as pop-up information placards, navigation waypoints, games or artworks, to stay “anchored” in the same location.
“Physical spaces have been completely missing from the internet,” said Mr Midha, whose AR app, currently in testing, will let anybody create digital objects to share with friends. “It turns out everybody wants to do something different with them.”
In the coming months, Niantic plans to bring new capabilities to Wizards Unite and Pokémon Go that will allow their virtual characters to interact with real objects. “It sells the whole illusion that fantasy and reality have merged,” said Mr Hanke. “Having your characters reach to a flower or a tree or a post box is magical.”
Many investors are betting on AR in anticipation that smart glasses from the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Magic Leap will be the next hit device among consumers. But with many of those products still in development, and sales of Magic Leap and Microsoft’s Hololens still modest, smartphone AR provides an opportunity to test new ideas.
“We are obviously in the pre-iPhone phase of glasses,” said Mr Hanke. “The multibillion-dollar question is which one of those triggers that tipping point when it enters the mass market . . . I think that’s probably more than a year out but I’m aware of some interesting products that are coming next year, so I think we’ll see progress.”