Is Snap Inc. Reshaping The Path To Augmented Reality?

Last week, bright yellow vending machines began appearing across the U.S. dispensing a small item to great hype: Snap Spectacles. These photo-shooting sunglasses allow wearers to record 10-second snippets of video and sync directly with the Snapchat app on their phones. This is worth following, as the manufacturer, Snap Inc., could be charting a new path towards augmented reality (‘AR’).

Snap Spectacles are not the first attempt at putting technology-enabled headgear onto peoples’ faces. Remember Google Glass, Google’s high profile, highly ridiculed experiment to make AR a reality? Neither do we.

Where Google went wrong with the Glass was that it tried to pack the smartphone experience, or at least an Apple Watch experience, into a pair of glasses. By trying to capture our collective sci-fi-augmented-reality imagination in a single product too far ahead of its time, Google broke the fundamental tenet of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship: iterate fast and release often.

This is a mistake that Snap has avoided so far. The Spectacles’ US$130 price tag (vs. US$1,500 for the Glass), limited distribution through temporary vending machines, and characterisation as a “toy” are all aligned with the “iterate fast and release often” philosophy, and intended to create scarcity and a “cool/fun” factor. The lesson that Snap learned is that the best, if not only, way to get consumers to adopt headgear (as opposed to other, more discreet wearables) is to i) make it a fashion statement, and ii) appeal to something consumers are already familiar with. True AR, or even basic AR that actually adds incremental value to our daily lives, is likely still years away. However, social networking, video and sharing are things that the selfie generation is intimately familiar with, and Snap’s Spectacles simply enhance that experience. By making consumers comfortable with wearing the company’s connected headgear, Snap could capture enormous mindshare of Millennials and Gen Z by the time true AR is finally available.

But two key questions remain. Firstly, there is the obvious question of how Snap will monetise the incremental video content created by its users. The idea of sitting through a 5 or 10 second ad just to watch a friend’s 10 second video is unlikely to sit well with most users. Secondly, where does Snap take the Spectacles from here? In a future world of augmented reality headsets, a pair of glasses with a built-in camera synced to an app is clearly not going to survive.

When Snapchat rebranded itself to Snap, Inc. two months ago, it was outwardly embracing co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel’s long-held vision that Snap is a camera company. Should its Spectacles prove less ephemeral than the billions of videos viewed daily on its chat app, Snap’s enduring success (and validation of its up-to US$25 billion IPO valuation) may come not as a camera company, but as an augmented reality company.