It's been a long time coming, but this week, Snapchat announced the next stage of its augmented reality push, with the launch of the first iteration of a fully AR-enabled version of its Spectacles smart glasses.
Though 'launch' is probably not the right term - this new, updated version of Spectacles, which are able to overlay digital graphics onto a person's real-world view will not be made available to the public, but will instead be distributed to AR creators, who will then essentially partner with Snapchat to assist in the next stage of development.
But for Snap, this is something that's been in the works for years, stemming back to the initial launch of Spectacles in 2016. Which, really, have always seemed intended for this next leap.
YeARs of Development
At the time that Snapchat launched Spectacles, it also changed its company description, calling itself 'a camera company' as opposed to a social media app.
Back then, it seemed like Snap was doing this purely to avoid comparisons to Facebook - at the time, Twitter was being heavily criticized over its failure to grow at a similar rate to The Social Network. But the change actually served an important purpose, in re-aligning what Snap was aiming to achieve, which, even then, pointed to advanced development of its AR tools.
Spectacles seemed built for this, and it almost seemed like Snapchat was forced to release its camera-equipped glasses too early, before it had been able to build the required AR tech.
But Snap was already working on it - shortly after Spectacles V1 was released, Snapchat established a new research and development facility in China, close to where Spectacles were being assembled, which would give it the opportunity to develop its AR tools in secret, away from the prying eyes of western media.
Snap also launched World Lenses just months after the Spectacles release, which again, pointed to the next stage of AR development.
Snap had the tools to create immersive, digital overlays on real-world environments, it had the hardware device on sale, which was being received with major hype. It just needed to get the two elements together.
Which, evidently, proved a lot harder in practice than Snap had seemingly anticipated.
The initial version of Spectacles ending up not meeting Snap's sales expectations, with hundreds of thousands of units ending up going unsold and sitting in storage facilities. That combined with rising success of Instagram Stories, which was a duplicate of Snapchat's own Stories feature, seemed to pose a real threat to the very existence of the company, with debts rising, and user growth slowing, and Snap appearing to have gambled too much on the future of AR to help lift it to the next stage.
That caused a significant re-focus at the company, and in the preceding years, Snap has been able to realign its app, and the company more broadly, around a more specific, niche use case, in connecting close friends and providing a more privacy-focused approach to messaging.
From there, Snap has been able to re-grow its platform, rising from the debris left by Facebook's replication and strengthening its main platform, which also saw massive growth when Snap updated its Android app in 2019. Long considered an afterthought for the company, Snap's Android re-awakening has now seen it catch on with Indian users in particular, which has helped fuel nine quarters of steady growth for the app.
But AR has always been its main strength. It's Snapchat's Lenses that first brought many people to the app to try them out, and they continue to be a key driver of awareness.
Snap's AR glasses may be new, but really, this has been the company's focus all along. It just hasn't been able to take the leap. Until now.
The Future of Digital Connection
Make no mistake, AR is going to be huge, and will form the next stage of digital connection.
Yes, VR is also a significant advance, with major potential for building wholly immersive digital worlds. But AR can work in complement to your everyday life, and can enhance your real-world experience with helpful prompts and pointers, along with interactive games, graphics, and more.
Again, Snapchat's Lenses have already proven to be a big winner in helping the company raise awareness, and gain market traction. Therefore, it's easy to imagine these types of advanced overlays, which are now possible in Snap's new Spectacles (this is an example from the actual new device), being a major winner, and helping to merge our online and real-world environments in totally new and engaging ways.
Which is why AR may end up being a bigger deal than VR. Definitely, the immersive, all-encompassing nature of VR can transport you to whole new worlds, but that also requires you to essentially leave your current world behind. AR works in complement to your actual life - so while VR establishes another plane of existence, AR enhances your current one, which will likely, eventually, make it a much more popular and valuable addition to people's daily lives.
And Snap may well be at the forefront of that next shift.
Sure, Facebook and Apple have more resources, and many other tech companies are also developing their own AR tools. But Snapchat has repeatedly shown that it's highly in-touch with its user communities, with a knack for producing more engaging, interesting AR tools and options.
That may not matter in a utilitarian sense, with the eventual success of AR also hinging on what it can do for you, and how it can enhance your daily life. But Snap is also investing in new tools on this front as well, with additional scanning options and processes that will eventually power whole new experiences via its Spectacles device.
Imagine tapping on your Spectacles to get an immediate price comparison for an item that you're looking at in-store, or getting recipe insights overlaid on your view when looking over the items in your fridge. Snap's expanded scanning system will be able to do this, which is why Snap's gradual shift towards making its scan tools more of a focus in the app are also significant.
After its varied experience in developing its AR tools, Snap knows that it's not just the technology, but also user behavior that needs to evolve, which is a key element in its strategic approach towards merging people into the next stage of an AR-enabled existence.
It's come a long way with its Spectacles device. For example, here's what the new glasses looked like in development:
And now, we're into the next major shift for AR, and the next big evolution for Snapchat.
This is the focus for the company, its key chance to become a much bigger player in the market. And Snap is already investing big - it's acquired FitAnalytics for its AR try-on tools, Pixel8Earth for expanded AR mapping, and most recently, WaveOptics, the supplier of the AR displays that form a key component of its new Spectacles offering.
These will all play key roles in helping to shape Snap's advance - while new integrations like this one with Disney will also help to increase awareness, and make Snap itself synonymous with AR tech.
Add a little pixie dust to your Disney memories with augmented reality from @DisneyPhotoPass and @Snap! ✨ Learn more about new interactive @Snapchat Lenses - and what’s in store for the @WaltDisneyWorld 50th anniversary: https://t.co/foFhw1HH8h #DisneyWorld50 pic.twitter.com/djvCfh05TS— Disney Parks (@DisneyParks) May 20, 2021
This is a huge opportunity for Snap, one which, as noted, it's been working towards for most of its existence.
It may not seem like it yet, but soon, AR will be a common component in many of your daily interactions, and if Snap can get it right, it will also play a key role in that process.
It's a huge bet, but one that Snap increasingly looks to be on the right side of.