4 min read

VPS (Visual Positioning System) is the Key to the Metaverse

Niantic is the metaverse dark horse that even I sometimes forget about. They’re still the only company to successfully create a massively shared metaverse experience (Pokémon Go) and do so through augmented reality – mapping the metaverse in the real world.

Now, Niantic is moving beyond the phone and into a headset as the lens to be in the metaverse.

Niantic just unveiled a reference design for its Outdoor AR Headset in partnership with Qualcomm. The headset is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon AR2 Gen 1 chip.

While it’s exciting to see a new and sleeker form factor for AR headsets, the real reason to get excited is that we’re getting closer to experiencing Niantic’s Lightship VPS in action.

VPS Upgrades GPS

Visual Positioning System (VPS) picks up where GPS left off. Specifically the last few feet of determining your location. GPS satellites can calculate where you are within an error range of about 6 feet. VPS, on the other hand, will calculate your location with an error range of about ½  inch (1cm).

How is VPS at least 10x more accurate than GPS?

In simple terms, VPS triangulates visual imagery. Whereas GPS triangulates a signal between your phone and two satellites to determine your location, VPS then takes over and analyzes what your smartphone’s camera (and one day the camera in AR glasses) is seeing to determine an even more accurate location.

VPS is like the last-mile delivery of GPS. Put another way, VPS is the last-inch localization of GPS.

Niantic’s little secret, though, is that all of this visual information captured by Pokémon Go users is now informing this Lightship project. Pokémon Go effectively mobilized hundreds of millions of users to capture images of the real world, cross-referenced against their GPS location. As a result, Niantic’s VPS data platform – called Lightship – is like Google StreetView on steroids.

The difference here is stunning. Whereas you can tour the Eiffel Tower in Google Maps StreetView from about a hundred points of view directly around the tower, Lightship VPS has a near-infinite understanding of the space around the Eiffel Tower. Why? Well, because millions of people have searched for Pokémon around the Eiffel Tower and thus allowed Niantic to map every single blade of grass and brick surrounding the Eiffel Tower.

The main point is that Niantic’s Lightship VPS is bringing digital mapping to an accuracy of less than a centimeter. And that’s major news for developers and businesses building in augmented reality.

Thus, it’s great to see Niantic’s Lightship platform partner with such a large manufacturer (Qualcomm) this early on. It’s a huge win for VPS.

VPS is for the Metaverse

Let’s say you’re visiting a city for the first time. You’re walking down a street when your stomach starts to rumble. It’s lunchtime. You pull out your phone, go to Google Maps, and look for restaurants in the area. You have to click into each restaurant to see the reviews, photos, etc. All the while, you’ve stopped in your tracks, staring down at your phone, and looking like an obvious tourist.

Now let’s imagine this scenario with the Immersive Internet. In this near-future, you’re wearing a pair of AR (augmented reality) glasses. These glasses allow you to access a mixed reality dimension of the real world. Digital displays are overlaid on top of the world you’re normally viewing. In this scenario, you turn on the Yelp metaverse experience in your AR glasses and now all of the restaurants on the street have a floating digital, red awning over their storefront – indicating the restaurants. As you pass by each restaurant, their reviews are displayed prominently. You can click on this digital display to see each review and photos of the food. All the while, your head is up, you’re enjoying your city walk, and you are still able to find the restaurant that suits you best.

This may seem like an incremental upgrade to our digital behaviors now, but that’s just one small scenario.

This vision of the metaverse aims to give us a visual, digital layer atop the real world, as seen through mixed reality headsets or glasses. It gives us this new digital dimension directly in our field of view without disrupting our ability to function.

For that reason, you might start to understand why VPS is crucial to making this happen. If we’re talking about anchoring digital overlays in the real world, then we need location accuracy down to the centimeter level. We cannot have much room for error. Otherwise, that digital awning I mentioned above might be half on Subway and half on the law office next door.

Niantic opened up the Lightship VPS platform to developers and businesses back in May 2022. They started by making more than 30,000 VPS-activated public locations available, with density in San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle.

I’ll give you a concrete example of what might be built with Lightship that will actually play out and make life better (or at least more interesting).

What I’d Build With Lightship

One of the most untapped social networks and information archives on the Internet is that of Yelp and Google Reviews. Specifically, the power reviewers. The people who take writing reviews incredibly seriously and have reviewed hundreds or thousands of things. Google calls them Local Guides. Yelp calls them the Yelp Elite Squad.

What’s fascinating about this group of reviewers is that they have influence in their respective apps, despite having no identity. We cannot view their backstory. There’s no easy way to get to know these reviewers. There’s no way to understand their tastes and thus be able to ignore their reviews in favor of someone with similar tastes as you. This can change with Lightship.

If I were a Local Guide, then I’d start building digital models of myself and placing them at all of the locations I’ve visited and reviewed. That’s at the minimum. A slightly more advanced idea would be to figure out a way to then translate my review into my digital model. This could be reflected in the expression on my digital model’s face, the number of fingers I’m holding up, etc. Now, an even more advanced version would be actually bringing that digital model to life; animating and giving a voice to my digital replica.

Over time, people would come to associate my digital model with restaurants they want to visit. Similar to how restaurants today will put up a picture of Guy Fieri if he had visited their place.

The point here is that Lightship allows Local Guides and Yelp Elite to build a brand that is platform agnostic. It’s simply location-based, which is exactly where a Local Guide needs to show up.

Overall, I think that Niantic is a metaverse company that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Lightship’s dataset is super unique and a major competitive advantage. Developers usually go where the data is, where the users are, or where the greatest opportunities lie. And right now, I feel as though Lightship will be that platform.