Snap, Inc. Is The Trojan Horse Augmented Reality Needs

Snapchat has been making somewhat of a Spectacle of itself lately. (no apologies for the pun. just roll with it.)

On Friday, the company announced that it was rebranding as Snap, Inc. (a camera company) and releasing a new hardware product called Spectacles. Go check it out if you haven’t seen it — it’s a pair of glasses that takes circular videos at the press of a button, and has an endearingly ridiculous, retro aesthetic to it.

Snap has had an interesting journey, and a value proposition that doesn’t make sense to most people: you take pictures and videos that disappear right after they’re viewed, or publish them to a story that goes away after 24 hours. To some, it’s a fun outlet for spur-of-the-moment sharing. For others, it’s a booming social media platform on which to build their brand.

Whatever the reason, tons of people use Snapchat. And the company’s been doing some really interesting things to socially acclimate people to augmented reality, with Spectacles being the latest move in that direction.

Let’s talk about barfing rainbows

Remember that phase when everyone was posting videos of them opening their mouths, and transforming into hellish caricatures with rainbows pouring out of their mouths? Well, people loved it, and it’s extended into flower headbands and puppy faces that can be overlaid onto your face during a snap video.

At first glance, this may not seem culturally significant.

Take a look at it from another perspective. Given the number of people using this, this may be the first time this sort of “augmented reality” was considered accessible and fun. Descriptions of prior attempts at the same idea may have been labeled “creepy,” “unsettling,” or just plain “janky.”

Seriously, think about it for a minute: How many people did you see casually embracing augmented reality before these features came around? Other companies have focused on fully-featured smart glasses and camera apps, both of which can have high barriers to entry or simply don’t work well (or both).

Now, people are communicating through pictures and videos, and adding Snapchat’s “flair” to their communications. It’s the perfect gateway drug for AR.

But true augmented reality needs a display… right?

Plus, smart glasses suck.

The typical state of Glass users.

Smart glasses that don’t suck

I won’t use this space to go on another tirade about Google Glass. It’s understood that it’s funky in all the wrong ways, and that it serves as a good test of some important augmented reality concepts.

Snap has taken a different route in bringing “smart glasses” to market:embrace the funkiness. They’re marketing the glasses as a toy, giving them a silly/fun aesthetic, and making them user-friendly above all else.

One button records a 10-second video.

That’s it.

That’s what it does.

This might not seem like the next big step for augmented reality. Until you think about AirPods.

As the article above details, AirPods are an in-ear computer revolution in disguise. AirPods are the “trojan horse” here: people think they’re buying an incrementally better version of headphones, where the hidden features are really defining a new class of product: an in-ear, virtual assistant.

The author of that article is on to something: Apple selling AirPods as an “in-ear computer” may very well have caused backlash, much like we saw with Google’s Glass. It’s hard to introduce any intimate technology product without hearing cries of “invasions of privacy” or mentions of Skynet.

A high-priced headset with a fully integrated camera and display is a hard sell. But toy glasses? Probably harmless.

…Probably harmless.

What could the future hold?

Augmented reality is starting to come to fruition in many different forms. In-ear computing will change a flurry of apps into a cocktail party of microservices, and integrated displays (smart glasses / contacts) will bridge the gap between user interfaces and our everyday lives.

It’s only a matter of time before augmented reality stops being a subset of “technology” and becomes the way we live. Spectacles are a sign of great things to come — however silly and fun they may be.