Omar Tellez, VP of Emerging Markets Talks About Pokemon Go’s Journey, Future of AR at the Company and More
Augmented Reality (AR) is the next big thing in the world of technology. The transformative potential of AR is not only limited to gaming, but it extends across multiple industries with several real-world applications. The innovations in this technology will bring almost limitless potential to how players approach gaming. Instead of players needing to enter a virtual world, AR helps project digital media right into the real world along with sound effects.
Companies that deal with AR technology are hard at work to constantly upgrade their tech to provide a better experience for the users. Niantic, one of the leading players in the industry is working towards building their own AR-based tool called Lightship Visual Positioning System.
IGN India got a chance to sit and chat with Omar Tellez, the Vice President of Emerging Markets at Niantic. During the conversation, we learned more about their new AR-based tool. In addition, we also got to know more about the journey of Pokemon Go till now, the future of AR, plans of Niantic and much more. Let’s check out our complete interaction with Omar here:
Q: Niantic entered the Indian market through the introduction of Pokémon Go. How has the journey been so far in the country?
A: Niantic is a company which uses AR and location-based technologies to develop and provide services that inspire people to get outside, walk, explore their neighborhoods, and connect with others. In 2011, John Hanke, our Founder-CEO started Niantic with an aim to make the world more magical through exploration, exercise, and real-world social interaction. Since inception, Niantic’s goal was to develop a new genre of gaming using mobile technology and our knowledge of maps.
In 2012, Niantic launched Field Trip – an app that enabled users to learn more about places they visited. Later in the same year, we launched Ingress, our first location-based game, which became a great hit over the next few years with over 25 million downloads. It continues to be a solid product for us, and globally we still have tens of thousands of people who play it daily.
Over the years, we worked on creating and understanding how product experiences truly function. In the beginning, digital games would mean playing games while sitting on your couch or sofa and using your TV as a gaming console. Then, with Pokémon GO, which we launched in 2016, I believe, we demonstrated to people that playing these games while going outside and exploring can still be as fun as you had thought.
Additionally, India has contributed significantly to the success of our games, and we believe it to be one of the countries with the highest growth rate for our current titles and those we plan to release in the near future using cutting-edge technology. As the world’s leading AR company, we believe that India, a technology-strong country, will continue to drive our player base immensely. Niantic has made strategic investments to strengthen its operations and widen its presence in the Indian market in response to the country’s fast growing gaming population, which is predicted to reach 450 million by 2023. For example, India has over 500K physical locations as virtual points of significance on our digital map (specifically, PokéStops and Gyms in Pokémon GO) in India, catering to the increasing engagement from the Indian gamers. In addition, we have also launched several on-ground activations that reflect the fundamentals of the game such as ‘Community Day’ monthly series where we hold events across several cities in India, including Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, and Thiruvananthapuram, amongst others, and Festival of Light. All these activities are testament to our ongoing efforts to provide new and better experiences to our trainers.
Our mission as a company today has remained consistent: “inspire people to explore the world together”.
Q: On the hardware front, innovation in AR Headsets has been on the rise. How does something like the Nreal Air help Niantic and the future of AR?
A: We are not able to talk about others but let me talk about what Niantic has been working on. Our goal is to help accelerate the development of AR headsets for outdoor use from hardware manufacturers across the industry. In late last year, we announced that our Niantic’s Lightship Visual Positioning System will be compatible with Qualcomm Technologies’ Snapdragon Space, which shall start this year. That means developers who use the Snapdragon Spaces XR Developer Platform can easily add functionality from Lightship VPS, so digital creations and experiences can be placed in and interact with the physical world in a magical yet believable way. Lightship VPS is powered by a new kind of map. To build immersive AR experiences at real-world locations, you need to know where your user is and what is around the user. Our Lightship VPS swiftly and accurately determines a user’s position and orientation in the real-world metaverse. With Qualcomm’s technology, we shall be able to bring a unique experience to people. We hope to be able to update you this year about this project.
Q: Where do you think AR can go from here, and in what ways can it grow? Also, how is Niantic working to contribute towards the growth of this field?
A: There is a lot of buzz around AR possibly being the next paradigm shift in computing. However, we believe that the world is still in the initial phases of advancement of AR. For us, augmented reality (AR) shouldn’t seem forced into a gaming environment. It must appear to be improving the gaming experience. Recently, we made significant investments in Augmented Reality (AR) and organized a summit for our Lightship platform which allows developers to use Niantic’s AR and location technologies, such as VPS (visual positioning system), to create their own AR products. The vision behind the launch was to multiply the number of virtual worlds that can be superimposed on the real world that people can experience. By having many virtual worlds, people can select the ones they are interested in to bring it into the real world to experience.
In addition to this, Niantic develops and offers Ingress, Pokémon GO, and Pikmin Bloom. They are built on the company’s mission of ‘inspiring people to explore the world together.’ In Pokémon GO, for instance, you may activate AR mode and physically lay out Pokémon on your palm. They recognize that this is a flat surface. It seems and feels real. Even those kinds of simple things require a great degree of technical proficiency.
It is because Niantic believes that people will continue to enjoy the real world and will appreciate augmentations via digital creations and information, rather than living in a virtual world with a screen always strapped on their head. We also believe that AR has great potential to have the best of the virtual world and the best of the real world. While most people talk about the Metaverse as a virtual world, we think of the Real World Metaverse, which means an elegant blend of the virtual and real worlds.
Q: What are the major obstacles that AR is facing now that can unlock the real potential of this technology?
A: I think it’s the same in all industries, but in the last three years or so, a lot of things have not moved as planned, partly due to COVID, and I think the AR industry is one of them.
For consumers to have a more immersive AR experience, two things need to happen. One is hardware and the other is software. Niantic is a company that develops software but in order to take the current AR experience through smartphones one step further, the hardware must also be involved.
On the other hand, even if you develop excellent AR hardware, it will be a waste of treasure without software that can be loaded onto it. In other words, the advancement of the AR industry requires hardware and software companies to work together toward the same future.
Currently, we are still on our way, which is taking a bit of time because of some unexpected circumstances, such as COVID-19, however, the AR industry is steadily moving forward.
Q: Niantic has surely been growing its portfolio by developing new games and servicing them constantly to keep them relevant. Many players have been wondering what they can expect from Niantic in the future. Can you give us a glimpse of the future?
A: Niantic has been continuously working towards making the experience for gamers in India better and enriching with its rapidly advancing AR technology. Since the launch of Pokémon GO in 2016, as mentioned earlier, Niantic has added over 500K physical locations as virtual places of significance in India which is the highest for any country in the world. Additionally, there has been release of new Pokémon and rollout of new features such as Campfire and Daily Adventure Incense at regular intervals for trainers in India. Along with updating the existing games with new and better features, Niantic is also coming up with new titles such as NBA All-world, MARVEL World of Heroes, and we also announced Peridot. Everyone around the world knows how fascinating NBA and MARVEL are. Each game has different excitements but all three are also developed to achieve our mission, “inspiring people to explore the world together”. Including the existing game labels, Niantic’s game titles have been designed around maps. Peridot will be a title with a lot more experimental elements, which will be an AR-centric title. We hope to deliver these new titles in the near future.
In addition, we have also launched several on-ground activations that reflect the fundamentals of the game. We have a ‘Community Day’ monthly series where we hold meetups across several cities in India, including Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, and Thiruvananthapuram, amongst others. We have been continuously coming up with India focused campaigns such as Festival of Light for two years and now dedicatedly working towards gauging interest of more and more people from India.
Q: Is Niantic planning on entering the field of esports and competitive gaming around AR?
A:This matter has been brought up as a topic many times within the company. For us, the most important thing is to develop and offer “people to go out and enjoy exploring” using our AR and location technologies. If one of the ways to do that is through esports, we may look into that area as well.
Q: Are you ready for the main-stream influx of users in the AR industry with Apple’s rumored AR tech?
A: I am not in a position to comment on other companies’ rumors. I believe that Apple’s focus on AR technology will be a great boost to the progress of the AR industry.