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Niantic has a new experience for Quest headsets that features an ‘AI-enabled’ owl

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Niantic, known for augmented reality mobile games like Pokémon Go and Peridot, revealed a new mixed reality experience on Tuesday. Titled “Wol,” it can be played on Quest headsets and features an “AI-enabled” talking owl discussing the redwood forest.

I packed a lot into that sentence, so let’s break it down. While you can check out this experience on your phone, it differs from Niantic’s AR mobile games because you can also try it using the passthrough video feature on VR headsets like Meta’s Quest 2 and Quest Pro. To use it, you visit a URL — MeetWol.com — meaning you don’t need an app to try it. In the experience itself, a large portal into a virtual redwood forest will appear in front of you, and then Wol will fly over and start talking to you about what you can see.

Wol’s AI is powered by Inworld, which Inworld itself describes as a “developer platform for AI characters,” and although you can talk to Wol and its AI underpinnings will help to create a reply, it seems as if Wol will have some fairly strict conversational bounds. “Wol keeps within the context of the redwood forest,” Tom Emrich, director of product management for the 8th Wall platform at Niantic, says in an interview with The Verge. “While you’re able to ask Wol anything, Wol will always keep you within the context of the story.”

I chatted with Wol for about 15 minutes on my Quest 2, and it was a smoother experience than I expected. Our conversation started after Wol flew onto a virtual tree next to my desk and asked my name and where I was from. I told it the correct answer — “Jay, from Portland” — and we were off, chatting about things like Wol’s favorite aspects of forest life, its youth, and its best friend (a bat, apparently). The strangest part was that Wol kept calling me “Jay from Portland” instead of just Jay, but that wasn’t too bad in the scheme of things; Wol generally answered my questions in a natural way with a minor delay, and it was very kind. I think a young child would have a lot of fun with this.

The Wol experience isn’t intended to be the next Pokémon Go-level phenomenon; Emrich says that the optimal amount of time within it is five minutes, and Niantic has no plans to update it. Instead, Wol was created more as a way to demonstrate Niantic’s 8th Wall technology that lets developers make web-based AR apps. (Niantic acquired 8th Wall in 2022.)

It might also be a preview of the types of apps you’ll see built with Niantic’s technology down the line, which could be especially interesting with headsets like Meta’s Quest 3 and Apple’s rumored mixed reality headset expected in the future. But that all being said, Wol is just a tech demo; we’ll have to wait and see if other developers create full-fledged mixed reality experiences that take off in a meaningful way.

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