I’m playing fetch with my bubbly little green-and-black virtual pet, a fuzzball my kid and I called Leopard because it looks like a leopard. I toss a virtual tennis ball by tapping my phone screen and see the ball bounce off the floor and armchair, and Leopard looks like he’s chasing after it. This is all on my phone, using the same type of augmented reality tech that’s been around for years on apps like Pokemon Go. For Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go, it’s also a prototype for where the company sees itself in a future world of AR glasses that may arrive sometime in the next decade. Did I mention that it’s also the debut of a new Amazon shopping service, too?
That’s a lot of pressure on a little cuddly virtual pet. Peridot, a free app that’s available now on Android and iOS, really is more like an AR-enabled Tamagotchi. That’s Niantic’s telegraphed design goal. But the backstory is fascinating. Peridot was a concept, originally, of how Niantic could imagine virtual companions in AR on future glasses and headsets, where we’d be looking at floating 3D objects instead of touching our screens. That concept has become a realized game, now, with a whole bunch of hatchable and breedable pets you can raise and feed on your phone.
The game’s not much different in spirit than the AR-enabled phone games Niantic already has. Pokemon Go has little critters you take care of. Pikmin Bloom does, too. Peridot looks a little less instantly map-based and social compared to typical Niantic games like Pokemon Go, but I played it in prerelease. It’s likely that meeting with other Peridot owners and letting our pets play (and… breed?) will feel a lot different.
It’s how the Peridot interacts with the world that’s unique. The game maps surroundings instantly using the phone’s rear camera, knows to navigate obstacles, and can jump on tables or seem to run behind things. That’s the sort of tech Apple has leaned on its lidar sensor on iPhones to accomplish, but it happens on a wider range of phones seamlessly here. (Sometimes my Peridot does run through walls though.) The app can also recognize what objects are in the real world, like flowers or pets or chairs or walls. It uses your phone’s camera to scan and understand at least a little bit of the world around you, which is called semantic understanding.
In that sense, this is a testbed for Niantic’s AR tech as the company continues to work on AR glasses with Qualcomm. As Apple prepares its own mixed-reality headset, and Google, Samsung and Qualcomm work on a future mixed-reality headset as well, there’s a looming question: What sorts of apps would even run on these devices? Niantic’s trying to figure that out.
The pet also has some AI to its personality, although not of a type that’s as ambitious as ChatGPT. Not yet, at least. Niantic admits that this type of AI-infused AR companion could be enhanced more over time. Snapchat added its own AI chat assistant to its app recently: Peridot definitely isn’t that, but could it be, someday?
The curious debut of Amazon Anywhere
Then there’s the merchandise, which is where things get weird. This pet game is the debut of a new Amazon service called Amazon Anywhere, which adds a built-in store for real-life merchandise that’s based on Peridot. The purpose of this seems, right now, just to be a way to sell things by linking an Amazon account into the Peridot app, should you even want to do that. But Amazon sees this service as a possible foot in the door to immersive shopping in other games, and also in AR.
Augmented reality has already been an active tool in retail, from glasses try-ons to virtual furniture showrooms. Snapchat and Apple and others have already leaned on shopping and fashion apps for AR in lots of little ways. Amazon is exploring something similar here, although just a bit for now. Amazon doesn’t have any AR glasses of its own (yet), but Amazon Anywhere is a curious debut inside of this seemingly innocent Peridot app.
Niantic is also, of course, selling its own in-game purchases of virtual clothing and toys for your virtual pet, and hatching new Peridots will also cost you. Like any free-to-play game, it’s full of optional paid microtransactions. Amazon Anywhere’s additional merchandise store doesn’t overlap with any of Niantic’s virtual product sales right now, but could it someday? Amazon is focused on the physical retail angle at the moment. But augmented reality is a fluid and fast-moving space, and it’s unclear how any of it will evolve.
Amazon tie-ins and microtransactions aside, Peridot is a very cute free pet game, no matter what. But as far as the rest of its potential, and when we’ll ever see a Peridot in a mixed-reality headset, we’ll just have to wait and see. And I’m curious where, exactly, Amazon Anywhere will emerge next.