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Check Out Snap’s New AR Glasses. And No, You Can’t Buy Them

Yes, the reports are true: Snap has made a new pair of augmented-reality glasses. Unlike the company’s earlier smart glasses, which had built-in cameras but didn’t do anything holographic, these new AR glasses project virtual images into the world directly in front of the wearer. But like those earlier smart glasses, almost no one will buy these.

I mean that literally: No one will buy these, because right now they’re not for sale. The new glasses are for developers of Snap's AR-powered Lenses, the software that generates those virtual images. Even developers won’t have to purchase them, though they’ll have to apply to receive a pair, because Snap just really, really wants people to make AR Lenses. Compelling, visually stunning Lenses. Lenses that help explain why technologists are so darn excited about augmented reality—because right now, AR has mostly been realized through some combination of Pokémon Go, virtual measuring tape on your phone, unsexy enterprise software, and an overhyped, well-funded headset maker in Florida.

Ask Evan Spiegel, Snap’s chief executive, what his favorite Lens is on these new augmented-reality glasses, and the answer might surprise you. It’s a poetry app, one that makes words appear in front of your eyes as you navigate the real world. “This may sound a little esoteric, but the way the words relate to the physical space that you’re in, and bring a totally different dimension to the poem—I thought that was interesting, when you look at the future of creativity,” Spiegel says.

Creativity is Snap’s big pitch for AR, the element that Spiegel thinks will set it apart from Google’s approach (index the world’s information), Facebook’s approach (be more social), or Apple’s approach (get locked into iOS). The AR glasses race is on. For Snap, the race is long—back in 2019, Spiegel predicted it would be a decade before AR glasses are widely adopted. Maybe that’s why the company is showing off a product that is clearly not ready for mass consumption. Or maybe it’s hedging its bets and hoping that Facebook doesn’t copy its ideas for once.

The new AR glasses are called, simply, Spectacles. This is the same name Snap gave to its first pair of smart glasses, which it launched back in September 2016. Subsequent versions had numerals attached to them—Spectacles 2, Spectacles 3. But those were camera glasses, not AR glasses. These new Spectacles are a “radical departure from what Snap has done in the past,” says Ramon Llamas, a research director at IDC, who was briefed in advance on the product. “It’s not just snapping a picture with your glasses and having your phone process it. This is a different paradigm: The glasses have to be spatially aware of what’s going on, and developers have to build apps that align with the situation around you.”

That spatial awareness is fundamental to the whole augmented-reality experience. Snap engineers know this as well as anyone, since the company built seemingly cheeky but technologically impressive AR filters in Snapchat long before bigs like Apple and Google introduced their AR frameworks for phones. Does Snap’s AR tech port well to glasses? Yes and no.

The glasses themselves are a stark interpretation of “wearable” technology. The extra-wide frames horizontally dwarfed my face when I tried them on at a spacious house in Silicon Valley in late April. I felt and heard my eyelashes brushing up against the lenses like mini squeegees. Where Snap’s earlier Spectacles were playful, with round frames and colorful rims around the camera lenses, these hard-angled specs are purposeful. (My editor thought they looked cool in the selfie I sent him; I personally wouldn’t wear them as anything other than a statement of Snap’s newest thing.)

“Our vision was to create a device that’s expressive, thought-provoking, and maintains a lightweight sunglasses form factor,” Lauryn Morris, a product strategy manager at Snap, told me over a video call. Thought-provoking, sure—I’m still thinking about the best way to describe them—but at 4.7 ounces, they’re more than double the weight of your standard Ray-Ban Wayfarers.

The weight is one of the many trade-offs of AR glasses; they’re packed with tech. The lenses are stereo color displays that automatically adjust for brightness, up to 2,000 nits. The imagery that appears in front of the wearer’s eyes is generated by dual optical waveguides, and there are two RGB cameras built into the specs to capture the peripheral world. Add to that four built-in mics for voice control, a pair of stereo speakers for spatial audio, and a touchpad on the right temple for navigating app interfaces. The glasses are capable of inside-out tracking—which means they’ll “see” your hands as you gesture through the air, and interpret their movements—but none of the earliest AR Lenses for Spectacles are utilizing this function yet.

Snap didn’t build these AR specs entirely from scratch (although, according to Spiegel, they were conceived of years ago, back when the first Spectacles were being mapped out). They’re built on Qualcomm’s XR1 platform, a dedicated system-on-a-chip and a series of reference designs for “extended reality” glasses. Snap is touting its custom Spatial Engine as a unique piece of technology, software that fuses together all of the positioning information being sucked in by the glasses to make apps feel realistic.

But those trade-offs, the compromises every glasses maker seems to make in this awkward stage of AR, are part of the reality of augmented reality. The 26.3-degree diagonal field of view on the glasses is smaller than the FOV on other head-up displays, such as Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens, and the touchpad needs some fine-tuning. Fortunately, there’s also a voice control option, which performs well when it works.

The battery on this developer device lasts for just 30 minutes. Snap’s thoughtfully designed carrying case doubles as a portable charger, but good luck wearing them for longer than 30 minutes: In the short hour I wore the Spectacles, I saw three warnings that the glasses had overheated. Also, there are no physical volume buttons on the specs, so you’ll have to thumb through the Snap smartphone app to control the sound levels.

Snap is intent on positioning—no pun intended—the glasses as a work in progress. They’re a tool kit for developers (or “creators,” as the company insists on calling them). “When we talk about compromise, maybe that’s the fundamental compromise we’re making,” Spiegel told me over videoconference from his home in Los Angeles. “Instead of shipping hardware to millions of people, we can iterate and learn together, this community of creators. Ultimately when you experience something like that poem, that’s all worth it.”

Spiegel is referring to a Spectacles Lens called Poem World, created by Zach Lieberman and narrated by Shantell Martin. I tried it myself during my briefing in Silicon Valley. I slipped on the glasses, walked into the backyard, and experienced the virtual scroll of words in front of my eyes. That’s the thing about Snap’s new Spectacles: For all their prototypical unreadiness and the general complexities of AR, the apps are remarkably cool.

A Lens called Metascapes guided me through meditation exercises, and every time I completed a breath cycle, it placed a virtual ocean creature into the space around me. An app called BlackSoul Gallery surrounded me with virtual art created by Black artists, bold paintings and giant wireframes appearing against the real-life bushes in the backyard. SketchFlow let me watercolor the space around me by “throwing” paint—swiping my finger intentionally across the Spectacles’ touchpad. One of the more wow-worthy aspects of AR applications is their spatial memory; you can create these bits of digital reality in the world around you, walk away for a bit, and, provided you haven’t closed out of the app, return to find the floating octopus or rainbow road right where you left it.

Snap only gave seven developers access to the glasses ahead of the official launch, but the company plans to dole out around a thousand more devices through its application process. It will even offer generous grants through an incubator called Ghost. Anything to get the apps made. Developers will have their work cut out for them, trying to make stuff within the technical and visual constraints of these funky glasses; the most annoying part of my experience with Spectacles, more so than the overheating, was the limited field of view.

You can also record your AR experience on Spectacles and wirelessly share it to your Snapchat smartphone app. And from there, share it with your friends, who will watch the video on a device with a wider visual canvas. Snap may be at the forefront of augmented reality, calling itself a camera company every chance it gets, but its most important technology is still its core mobile app.

Looking Ahead

Snapchat users create an average of 5 billion snaps, or messages, every day. You read that correctly: 5 billion. And here’s the thing: That’s just photo and video messages, not text-based ones. Its youngish users, what Snap refers to as “the Snapchat generation,” are 150 percent more likely to prefer communicating with images instead of words. That’s a big part of why, back in 2016, Spiegel began insisting Snap was a camera company.

Snapchat users also love AR filters, or lenses as the company calls them. In the first quarter of 2021, the number of Snapchatters applying filters grew 40 percent from a year ago. The “extended reality” glasses, to borrow the nerdy phrase from Qualcomm, are quite literally a way of extending that reach, of ensuring that no matter where you go—that even if you’re determined to look away from your phone—Snap’s lenses are right in front of you. There’s all kinds of potential there, beyond sheer art. It’s not hard to imagine ads, or commerce buttons, appearing in front of your very eyes.

But Snap’s insistence that it’s a camera company raises an obvious point: Glasses aside, it doesn’t actually sell cameras (despite yearlong rumors that it is making a drone). Its “camera” is a software tool, a conduit for snaps and filters and streaks, a portal through which 280 million daily active users enthusiastically connect with friends. It doesn’t own the biggest camera platforms in the world; Apple and Google do, through their mobile operating systems. Snapchat is unlikely to ever be the camera you access when you double-tap on that shortcut button to your phone’s camera. And Snap’s platform is just as unlikely to reach the scale of Facebook’s 1.8 billion daily active users.

These comparisons normally wouldn’t seem apt except, well, Apple and Google and Facebook are also deeply invested in AR and are developing new forms of AR glasses. Spiegel seems unwilling to poke the beast when I ask him about these competitors, or about Apple and Google’s duopoly in the smartphone software market.

“I wouldn’t necessarily make the same juxtaposition that you have,” Spiegel says. “I think when people are engaging with Snapchat, the intent is very different.” He believes that for the past 10 years people have used their smartphones to essentially document things, to snap photos at birthday parties, but that Snapchat has “helped people use the camera in a totally different way.”

Spiegel is correct about one thing: Snap, née Snapchat, has led people to use apps in totally different ways. It paved the way for disappearing messages, it popularized AR filters on our phones, and it made 24-hour “stories” a permanent part of our social media experience across so many apps. It now thinks it can set the stage for truly immersive AR glasses, competitors be damned. Someday, you might even buy a pair.

Update, May 20, 2021 at 3 pm: This story was updated to clarify the difference between Snapchat apps and Lenses.

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