On November 10, the newly-rebranded Snap Inc. made its first foray into hardware by launching its Snap Spectacles in Venice Beach. Since then, thousands more of these video-enabled glasses have been sold through an as-of-yet limited release across the country. Though only a few customers have gotten their hands on them so far, they are poised to have a crucial impact on the adoption of augmented reality, or AR.
But how exactly does AR come into the picture? It’d be a stretch to call Spectacles an AR product at all. Unlike Google Glass and other smartglasses, the main feature of a pair of Spectacles isn’t a display, but a camera with wireless upload functionality. You aren’t augmenting your reality, so much as just capturing it more efficiently.
So in truth, Spectacles won’t be the first popular, mass-market AR product. What it will be is AR’s first gateway gadget.
This past summer, Pokemon Go released to global fanfare. With over 500 million downloads to date, and 25 million active players at its peak, its more-or-less realization of the Pokemon fantasy was an extraordinary success. And while its rough superimposition of 3D models over phone camera input could only loosely be considered AR, it did succeed in bringing the term “augmented reality” to the public consciousness. What Spectacles will do is take that one step further: whereas Pokemon Go publicized AR, Spectacles will normalize it, in several crucial ways.
Eyeglasses have always been considered as the ideal form factor for AR in the long-term. There have been past attempts at smartglasses, but these have generally looked bulky or ugly. Case in point, Google Glass.
Spectacles make digital-enabled glasses stylish, colorful, fun. Instead of making owners feel self-conscious, this is a gadget that people would proudly wear, a gadget that has people rushing out to goofy vending machines just for a chance at snagging them. Something of a cross between a hot tech product and a limited-edition toy.
Aside from their appearance, Spectacles may serve as a barometer for where the public stands on the privacy issue. Sure, Google Glass may have failed in large part because of its poor marketing, impracticality for daily use, and terrible aesthetics, but the prospect of getting hostile reactions from strangers concerned about their privacy was likely the deciding factor for many. Whether or not you’re self-conscious about wearing them, you probably don’t want an angry stranger in your face asking you to turn them off.
If these unassuming gadgets can go big while getting the public accustomed to what an AR world will bring, that may be a signal that the market is ripe for that next step. After all, we’ve been trading privacy for convenience for years now, and in public spaces, that trade-off is likely to come much more quickly.
Of course, the market won’t be getting used to the idea of Spectacles and smartglasses all at once. In my last post, I brought up the disproportionately quick adoption of new tech — especially the more expensive new tech — by younger generations. Unsurprisingly Millennials, who have been spotted traveling to the new Snapbot vending machines in far greater numbers than their older counterparts, will probably be leading the AR revolution.
But just to be clear, the Millennials do have older counterparts on Snapchat. And their numbers are growing.
Snapchat is gradually aging up, and this trend shows no signs of slowing. This is nothing new; Facebook has experienced the same aging-up effect for years now. And even if the use cases for Spectacles are narrow at first, their consumer base will almost certainly age up in exactly the same way. If Snapchat’s own limited use cases didn’t stop this pattern from taking hold, then there is little doubt we’ll see Spectacles in the hands of more older consumers before long, clearing the way for these same customers to embrace the possibilities of AR.
In fact, in the case of Spectacles, their limited use cases may be precisely what the AR industry needs at this stage. After all, the internet was built on social. Usenet groups and other communication channels came first; ecommerce, news publications, and advertising only followed once there was a critical mass of users in place.
While Spectacles aren’t exactly superimposing the digital world over the physical one, they are seamlessly merging our awareness of the two, further dissolving the barrier between our sensory and online experience. If Spectacles do achieve the degree of nationwide success their early hype is pointing to, then millions more will soon be one casual button-click away from their digital personas.
That being the case, perhaps by the time commercially viable AR applications and devices are ready to transform how we live and socialize, both on and offline, the mainstream public will be ready.