Niantic Buys 6D.AI as Battle to Own the AR Cloud Begins

on April 3, 2020

This week a small startup that few people outside the augmented reality (AR) industry have heard about called 6D.AI was acquired by Niantic, one of the few AR-focused companies most people do know (thanks to its hit game Pokémon Go). So why is Niantic’s acquisition of 6D.AI important? Because it could represent the opening shot in an industry-wide battle to own an essential building block of our AR future, collectively termed the AR Cloud.

What is the AR Cloud?
The AR Cloud, as the name unintentionally implies, is a somewhat amorphously defined technology that is comprised of a 3D map of the world that enables AR applications to persistently tie digital objects and experiences to specific locations in the real world. Fundamentally, it is vital because mapping the real world is essential to the future of AR if it’s going to move from purpose-built applications in the enterprise to mainstream usage. The AR Cloud will be critical to driving a feature-rich, shared AR experience across all types of AR-enabled devices from smartphones and tablets to glasses and headsets.

How important is this technology to the future of AR? Many in the industry call it the operating system (OS) for AR. We know from history that the companies that own the OS of a new technology category—think Apple, Microsoft, and Google—are the ones that tend to capture most of the revenue generated there. So, it’s no wonder that many of the tech-industry majors have begun the work of building their own versions of the AR Cloud, some quite publicly and others behind the scenes. Concurrently, we’ve seen a ton of investment into startups, such as 6D.AI and others, that are racing to build their versions of the AR Cloud.

The well-funded startup Magic Leap calls its AR Cloud the MagicVerse. Microsoft calls its service Spatial Anchors, and it is in beta supporting HoloLens, Apple’s ARKit, and Google’s ARCore. Facebook calls its version Live Maps, Google’s is Anchors, and Niantic’s is the Niantic Real World Platform. You get the picture: Everybody is in the pool, and some are being more public about it than others.

Why the AR Cloud is Key to the Future of AR
One of the reasons that AR’s biggest successes, to date, have mainly occurred in the enterprise is because there is clear value to real-world use cases there, from knowledge capture and transfer to collaboration to accessing 3D models and more. And it’s not that enterprise use cases can’t use real-world mapping; it’s that they’ve mostly dealt with the lack of mapping by using next-gen barcodes, object recognition, and other technology workarounds. But for AR to expand its commercial use cases, and to take off with consumers, the industry needs to make all of this happen automatically. My AR device needs to know where I am, and when I’m there, and it needs to recognize the digital objects that others have placed there.

Another critical element that the AR Cloud will drive is something called occlusion. A person’s AR experience is significantly improved if the digital object they are viewing is spatially aware of the real-world objects around it. So, for example, if you are watching a digital rabbit run in front of you in AR, it shouldn’t run through the real-world light post, it should run around it. And just as important, when it passes behind the light post, it should briefly disappear and then reappear on the other side. Occlusion not only drives a higher level of immersion; in time, it will be instrumental in driving better forms of interacting with these digital objects, too.

One of the issues we’re going to run into as all these companies build out their own AR clouds and make them available to the developers who create the next generation of AR apps is that persistence only works if it is universal. If my map is different from your map, and each shows different landmarks and such, it diminishes the usefulness of both maps. That’s why the Open AR Cloud organization exists. It’s mission: “to drive the development of open and interoperable AR Cloud technology, data and standards…” The company has an impressive list of contributing companies, although there are some notable hold outs. Recently the organization announced plans to build its own reference Open Spatial Computing Platform (OSCP). Keep an eye on this working group, as its ability to bring companies together to create a truly useful AR Cloud will be important.

Why Niantic’s Purchase of 6D.AI Matters
So, at the end of the day, why is the purchase of a company most people haven’t heard about by one that many have heard of important? For starters, it means one of the upstart independents has been swallowed up by one of the more prominent players. That will have a meaningful impact on developers that have built or are building apps utilizing 6D.AI’s existing services. The company says its current SDK will only remain active for another 30 days, and it will wind down its existing developer tools during that same period. A note on its site says it is shifting its focus to “helping developers build realistic AR applications through the Niantic Platform.” I hope Niantic takes good care of 6D.AI’s existing developers.

We can speculate as to why 6D.AI opted to sell now, but the broader implication is that this likely signifies that additional consolidation in this space is coming. There are simply too many companies trying to build out their own AR Clouds, and the ramp of AR in the consumer space is, quite frankly, taking longer than many of these companies expected. It was just a matter of time before we started to see more acquisitions, and likely some closures.

My hope is that purchases such as this one will help speed the development of workable AR Clouds that will deliver the experiences that we’re all looking forward to having in AR. My concern, however, is that as bigger players capture more of the technology and developer mindshare, we could be headed toward a series of walled-off AR Clouds. If that happens, it won’t be good for the industry or users.