Snap equipped its next generation of smart glasses with augmented reality (AR) technology to help foster stronger ties with people who create content for its photo-messaging app. The limited release among creators may help Snap to drum up interest in AR wearables before selling them to the general public, potentially opening another media channel for marketers to interact with consumers.
The company is among several developing AR glasses that show digital images on their lenses, letting the wearer view much of the same information that's currently available on a smartphone screen, but in a more immersive fashion. Apple and Facebook are developing similar wearables, seeking to pick up where Google left off with its Glass headsets that failed to gain traction among consumers.
"It's still early right now in the AR space with very few commercial devices out there," said Neil Mawston, executive director of wireless device strategies at Strategy Analytics. "A lot of players in the industry are talking and thinking and speaking about AR, but it's more about planning and experimenting."
That spirit of experimentation is evident in Snap's AR-equipped Spectacles, which the company introduced in May at its annual Snap Partner Summit. Unlike previous generations of Spectacles, the new models aren't yet ready for consumer purchase. Instead, Snap is taking a different approach by distributing them to select creators who make Lenses, the popular AR feature in Snapchat for decorating selfies and pictures with digital imagery.
The limited release is reminiscent of Google's marketing for its Glass headset, which the search giant introduced in 2013 to qualified "Glass Explorers" in the U.S. before making the device available to the public a year later. Unlike Google, Snap is offering the Spectacles for free to its AR creator community of 200,000 people who have designed more than 2 million Lenses, Snap announced at its summit. Creators can apply for a chance to receive the Spectacles by applying on a website that asks for samples of their creative works.
Geared for creators
The Spectacles have several features that make AR content more interactive rather than a passive viewing experience. Their 30-minute battery life currently isn't geared for extended wear, but Snap emphasized how creators can use the wearable device in their experiments with AR content. By supporting its creative community, Snap is laying the groundwork for more AR applications down the road within sales and marketing.
"A lot of players in the industry are talking and thinking and speaking about AR, but it's more about planning and experimenting."
Executive director of wireless device strategies, Strategy Analytics
Spectacles' role as a development tool is evident in their integration with Lens Studio, Snap's desktop software for creating and distributing AR content. The wearable device has two cameras to capture video and to support a Scan feature that suggests a Lens based on a wearer's unique field of view. The glasses also have four built-in microphones to record audio and allow for the use of Voice Scan to launch Lenses, removing the need to tap the touchpad on the glasses' arm. The touchpad has two buttons to activate the Scan feature or capture 10-second clips of Lens overlays and share them on Snapchat.
Depending on their acceptance among the AR creative community, Snap may market Spectacles to consumers as it did with previous versions of the glasses that had limited functionality. Earlier Spectacles models offered a way to record video and post to Snapchat, but didn't let the wearer view digital content on their lenses. Those versions of Spectacles didn't gain widespread acceptance after initial fanfare, and the company reported a loss on unsold inventory in 2017.
Measuring consumer need
Snap's more cautious approach with its AR-enabled Spectacles this time around is warranted until consumers show more of a need for wearable devices that offer hands-free functionality along with the versatility of smartphones. Still, people may be more willing to buy AR glasses from a tech company that has a track record of developing hardware. For that reason, Strategy Analytics' Mawston predicts a company like Apple could be a major player in the development of consumer-facing AR headsets in the next two to three years. On top of consumer trust, Apple has experience with making technology more accessible and scaling production as needed.
Apple is said to be developing a variety of headsets, though its standalone AR headset isn't expected to be ready for several years, 9to5Mac reported. More immediately, the company is preparing to launch an AR/VR headset aimed at the developer community, similar to Snap's current strategy with Spectacles. Apple's first headset will have 15 cameras to track eye movements to provide better image quality.
"Apple is probably the catalyst in terms of whether augmented reality or virtual reality takes off on a mass scale," Mawston said. "Lots of companies are trying it, but nothing is really hitting the sweet spot."