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.

Engineering Experiences

"User experience" has almost become a buzzword in the tech world. In many companies, the term is just code for “user interface that doesn’t look like it’s from the 90s.” Nonetheless, there’s been a huge amount of enthusiasm for whatever user experience actually is lately, and it’s spurred a mass movement of putting design at the forefront of product focus - or at least giving that appearance. This newfound emphasis begs the question, though: how do you truly offer a “user experience?”

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

At its most basic, an experience is nothing more than a moment in time. If you want to truly create an entire experience, you have to take into account all of the user’s preconceptions about every part of your product: their emotional state, any outside stimuli acting on them… the list goes on. It’s incredibly difficult to account for all of this, and actually, it borders on impossible. As such, most products that offer a great user experience simply aim to keep the moments of interaction with their product as stress-free and pleasant as possible.

Pictured: the only proven way to fix Microsoft Outlook.
Unfortunately, the legacy software that many corporations use does not focus as much on this stress-free interaction. It’s a huge opportunity that an increasing number of companies are taking charge of.

Enabling truly efficient interaction is made possible by a field of study called Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI. HCI studies the mental processes of a user as they interact with a computer interface, and develops rules for the most effective input methods and interface layouts for different tasks. Scientists in this field create interaction models to quantify all of this data, and apply it to reduce the time required for the majority of users to complete a task.

User experience, on the other hand, goes beyond efficiency and explores hedonic response, better known by many as emotion. While many products have gotten incredibly easy to use, great user experience actually makes a person feel good about using a product and keeps them coming back, creating “stickiness” that product companies strive for. By targeting these hedonic reactions, companies can create a product that users connect with and willingly invite into their daily routine, rather than being tasked with dealing with “this new-fangled computer tomfoolery.”

So, how do we embrace the concept of user experience if it’s impossible to actually create an experience? We enable it, and design for experience rather than taking charge of the entire moment. We develop personas for who will be using the product, envision scenarios in which it will be used, and only then consider how we will actually implement the technology.

Developing empathy, or a deep understanding of the user, is the most important part of this product design model. Given this empathy, we can derive what the user will be sensing alongside our product, the mental filters through which they perceive various stimuli, and more. To create a truly immersive product, we would need to stimulate as many of these senses as possible, completely capture the user’s imagination, and hold them within the moment we create. These requirements make empathy an invaluable component of the development process.

...Which could be for the best. Once we get truly immersive virtual reality, I'm pretty sure we’ll just let the robots win. (So long as they give us hoverboards and unlimited respawns.)
Virtual reality, while awesome, doesn’t yet deliver a full experience - it only captivates our sight and hearing, at best.

So, how do we go from the idea of user experience to enacting a design that will enable true experiences? We get the engineers on board.

Engineers like to build. We like to take ideas, turn them into realities, and get them out into the world. But we rarely take into account how others will use them. We’re all guilty of this on some level, and I’m by no means exempt from this. We need to account for how our creations will affect people on an emotional level, and design products for experience rather than purely for form or function.

In the spirit of this thinking, why keep designers separate from engineers? The time I’ve spent learning about the design process and design thinking in general has helped me immensely as an engineer, and I feel that designers and engineers working together (or even being the same people!) results in better solutions and happier users.

Let’s work on enabling experiences, and making sure we keep touch with the people we’re building our products to serve.