Don’t look now, but the next computing platform is coming. It won’t be a phone, or a laptop, or a miniputer you wear on your wrist. It will be a pair of glasses that upend the way you communicate, find information, and view the world around you.
Want a glimpse of that future? Take a look through Snap’s Spectacles.
Hold up. Spectacles? The camera-enabled sunglasses that received a dim reception when Snap released the first pair in 2016? Sure, they’re specifically part of Snap’s future and the self-professed camera company’s survival in the coming battle against Facebook, Apple, Google, and all the other companies vying for the real estate on your face. But this is more than a hardware lark or a gimmick to get people to post more content on Snapchat. In introducing the sequel to Spectacles, Snap is sending a message: These glasses aren’t just our future. They’re your future too.
OK, maybe not Spectacles specifically, at least not in their current form. Spectacles 2.0 fall into the same pitfalls as Spectacles 1.0: fun to use, but non-essential. They’re also tethered, for now, to the Snapchat platform. You have to open the app to retrieve your footage, and everything you capture shows up in a weird, circular format that only really looks good on Snapchat. But Snap doesn’t need Spectacles to be an essential, life-changing tool—not yet. The company needs to practice making hardware so it will be ready for when this technology really matters.
The race to make the first great pair of face-puters has already begun, with all the big tech companies vying for dominance. Whether the tech will be used as an information-gathering tool, like Google Glass, or entertainment devices, like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, remains to be seen. But by a large consensus, they will show up in the form of glasses, giving you hands-free access to an entirely new type of computing. When that revolution arrives, Snap wants to be on the front lines.
Which is why Spectacles are so important. They’re not Magic Leap, but in some ways, they’re even better: a product you can actually wear on your face right now. The fact that their capabilities are so simple—press a button, shoot a video—might make them more palatable than, say, a device that plunges into the deep end with voice controls, augmented reality, and an always-on interface. Spectacles won’t change how you see the world, but they might make the idea of a face wearable a little less insane and prime people for whatever comes next. And the fact that they’re out into the wild makes it easier for Snap to understand how to design a product you’re supposed to wear on your head all the time. (It’s not easy!) The company says it completely redesigned the second version based on feedback from the first—it replaced the guts with a smaller battery and a better image processor, and slimmed down the hardware so that it feels lighter on your face. The next version, which Snap is reportedly already working on, should be even better.
Snap can no longer count on its core app to keep it relevant in the years to come. The app’s cool-factor has been burning off for years; competitors, like Instagram, are an existential threat. But Snapchat has grown into much more than an ephemeral messaging app in the seven years since it launched. It’s the place that taught you how to take a selfie, and how to love augmented reality. It’s still the most reliable way to take a great photo, with some of the best camera software on your phone. It needs a way to bring all of this beyond the app—a way to keep people taking photos and videos, and to keep playing in its augmented reality worlds, even if they don’t end up posting a Snap story. One way to do that? Give people a new way to interact with that software outside of a messaging app. Like, for example, an actual camera.
One day in the future, Spectacles won’t be goofy-looking glasses with technicolor frames. They’ll be a sophisticated computing platform: one that captures video better than a GoPro, brings the dancing hot dog to life before your eyes, and makes it a little easier to leave your phone behind. It might seem far-flung, but Snap is working to build the next computing platform already, with separate arms of the company developing the hardware and the software that will converge to make the next great thing. “Over the next decade or so, the way that these pieces fit together will probably be what defines our company,” Spiegel told WIRED’s Jessi Hempel this week. Hardware glasses, for example, could be the thing that takes Snap’s investment in augmented reality to the next level.
Snap has been dreaming of this future for a long time, even before they officially dropped “chat” from the company name. In 2017, it filed a patent for a type of augmented reality glasses that would seamlessly merge the digital world with the physical one. A patent, of course, is not a product roadmap; Apple and Facebook have filed patents for AR glasses too. But neither of those companies have introduced a piece of hardware that gets close to what AR glasses might be. Snap is already on its second edition.
Snap might not come out on top in the wearable war. But just like it paved the way for a new kind of social media with ephemeral “stories” and taught the internet to love AR with its lenses, Snap is doing something important with Spectacles: It’s teaching people how to wear computer on their faces. Like all of Snap’s great ideas, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the industry copies them.