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.

And apparently iOS 7 doesn't make it waterproof, either. Everything is a lie.

What Can The Technology Industry Learn From Art?

Over the past few years, I’ve studied a field known as arts entrepreneurship. What this means is that I’ve been studying how people perceive and value art, and learned how to start and maintain an effective business in the arts sphere. These practices result in a different business mentality than what I’ve been used to working in technology, and learning how the arts economy works has been incredibly valuable. Over time, I’ve been thinking about how these practices can be applied to the tech industry to let innovative products succeed where traditional business practices would fail.

(A quick side note: When I mention to others that I want to merge the technology and art industries, many people think I’m just referring to industrial design. What I’m talking about isn’t the idea of just bringing more aesthetic value into how products look - it’s about the way you market the product, the way people use it, and the way the value of an item is perceived. It’s more about creative direction and properly manifesting a vision/idea than it is about just creating an item.)

And apparently iOS 7 doesn't make it waterproof, either. Everything is a lie.
Caution: Merging technology and art in too literal of a sense can lead to broken dreams and voided warranties.


One of the lessons I’ve learned about these two economic spheres is how a product’s value is perceived by the mass market. In both industries, there are two broad categories of target markets: creators and consumers. In art, the creators are the artists themselves, and the consumers are the people who purchase works of art. In technology, software developers largely fill the role of creators, and everybody else who utilizes technology as an end user is a consumer. The arts market generally produces entirely separate products for creators and consumers, while in technology, facets of the same product are presented to the two groups in different ways.

If we look at the creators in both categories, we can see how products are presented differently in each sphere. Products marketed to artists are always presented as a vector through which they can create their art, rather than simply something to play with and try out. This mentality is most obvious in visual art, as the packaging and advertising for products visual artists use are always populated by other pieces of visual art, with less of a focus on the tool itself. In some other arts, the distinction is less apparent (particularly with music, as the end result of a product can be harder to convey without audio), but if you look carefully you can still see these practices taking place in most artistic products.

In technology, the specs of a product are most always presented front and center, and there’s a much clearer mentality of purchasing something to “tinker with” rather than having a clear end goal in mind. Rather than viewing the product as something which serves a clear purpose, tech gadgets are often presented as a collection of cool features with an open platform for development, asking the community of creators to help define an explicit use case for the product rather than portraying a use case front and center.

...Or Batman. I'm universe impartial.
...which doesn't stop these products from being COMPLETELY AWESOME, however. Using a Leap Motion with my coding setup makes me feel like Iron Man.

Now, let's look at the end consumers for both economies. In the arts, the end product isn't often a utilitarian item: in other words, people normally don't go out looking for a painting with a very specific size, color balance, or brush technique (interior designers aside, of course). Instead, sales normally happen when a work's aesthetic value resonates with someone in the right way, and they decide that they want it. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but there is a very defined contrast in buying patterns when it comes to pieces of art against technology products.

In the tech world, every end product is bought to fill a need. Cell phones are looking to be the fastest and have the longest battery, laptops need to be compact and powerful work stations, and even watches now battle to provide the most relevant information for the best price and form factor. It's very rare for someone to see a product in passing that they don't need, and instantly purchase it because it struck them in just the right way. That may be because technology often exists at a higher price point than (popular) art, but it still stands that technological purchases are almost always heavily premeditated and need-based consumer decisions predicated on a heavy weighting of competing options.

”The Innovator’s Dilemma” covers the most recent disruptions that occurred in printing technology in a fair amount of detail. That book was published in 1997. ...Screw printers.
...Unless we're talking about printers, in which case we just buy the cheapest one we can and hope its archaic technology and boundless malevolence only impact our lives on occasion.

Why does this distinction matter? Two words: disruptive technologies.

When innovative products emerge, there often isn't a predefined use case for them, however revolutionary they may be. Historically, incremental disruptions have taken hold because their manufacturers found a niche use case for them through which they could continue to grow and develop the product until it could meet the needs of a mass market. However, in consumer markets, it's very difficult to find these niche users and adequately meet their needs when they are set in using their older, more proven technologies that may share much of the same functionality. For this reason, companies with these technologies can greatly benefit from leveraging an artistic/aesthetic method of marketing and positioning their products. Though I hate to fall back on Apple as an example, they have successfully leveraged this thinking multiple times, introducing disruptive products such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, or pretty much anything that begins with a lowercase "i."

This is just one of the many ways that technology can learn from art. The economies associated with each product class are starkly different, and there are many more lessons that technology could learn from the art world, particularly when it comes to introducing new and innovative products. By merging these two mentalities, we can help to create a world where emerging technologies can let people accomplish consistently greater feats.