Augmented reality doesn’t really exist yet. But do you know what it is? Facial lenses. Millions of users on Snapchat, Instagram, Zoom, TikTok and countless other apps are already used to pressing a button and having dog ears suddenly attached to their skulls, rainbows shot from their mouths or their makeup subtly – or not so subtly – transformed into a new style. Most users don’t consider this augmented reality or consider these features proof of some revolutionary new technology. But whether you call it lenses, filters, or something else, it’s all augmented reality.
At its Lensfest developer event this week, Snap announced that it now has over 300,000 developers building AR products for its platform and that together they’ve built over 3 million lenses that have been viewed 5 trillion times. All of these numbers rose more than a year ago, and for Snap they are proof that augmented reality is already finding some fit in the product market.
Snap’s big news at this year’s Lensfest is monetization. Snap is working with select creators to create Lenses that include purchasable digital goods — think in-game items, enhanced Lens control, that sort of thing — that users can purchase with Snap Tokens. The plan borrows ideas from the in-game economies of platforms such as Roblox and Fortnite, with just a hint of the NFT craze. Either way, Snap hopes it helps developers make money now and inspires them to keep building. “We are very optimistic that this will create more opportunities for Snapchatters to pay for the value they get from our experience,” says Snap CTO Bobby Murphy, “and will also motivate even more investment, time and effort. efforts and will increase the level of quality around the use cases.
Translation: AR is good. It will get better. But it will only become big if it is also a big business.
A new money-making tool might seem like a small stake in the evolution of AR, but it’s a key bet for Snap. No one knows the power of an ecosystem better: From disappearing messages to Stories to Bitmoji and lenses, Snap has a well-deserved reputation as the R&D department of other tech giants, who then copy the ideas of Snap and give them to a larger audience and wider audience. lucrative developer ecosystem. With AR, Snap is determined not to let the cycle repeat itself. It means building the product and the business before someone else does.
Building an AR business is also crucial to Snap’s long-term prospects. The company knows that facial lenses on a smartphone aren’t the final form of augmented reality – the long-term vision of augmented reality involves dedicated glasses, ongoing experiences, and software that understands exactly what you’re looking at and what you’re looking at. that you might want to do with it. “If I choose to put any material on my face,” says Qi Pan, director of computer vision engineering at Snap, “it must add value to my life almost every minute I wear it; otherwise, I will choose not to.
It’s a high bar, and no one is close to crossing it. However, Murphy says he is confident the company will get there. “That future that felt so far away for many years actually seems closer than I would have even guessed several years ago,” he says. The latest Snap from Spectacles has been in the hands of developers for over a year now, and while it’s still a primitive gadget – with great battery life and overheating issues and resolution relatively weak and a small field of vision – Murphy says he’s seen enough to convince him that Snap is on the right track.
If Snap wants to see its vision through, however, it needs to be right both on the 10-year plan and on how to get from here to there without killing the company in the process. Long-term bets take time, and the current economic moment in particular doesn’t really allow it: Amazon has had to make cuts to Alexa because it doesn’t know how to monetize its voice assistant, Meta’s decade-long metaverse. bet played a part in the company’s stock price crash, and even Snap had to scale back some of its more exploratory projects like the Pixy flying drone. Inventing the future is expensive and risky, even at the best of times, and it’s not the best of times.
How is AR supposed to, you know, work?
Understanding how developers can make money goes hand in hand with another big question facing Snap and the entire AR industry: how is AR supposed to, you know, work? So far, there is little the industry seems to know for sure. Face lenses are winners. The same goes for the virtual try-on, which lets you see what everything from sunglasses to sofas will look like before you buy them. People are starting to use AR to get more information about a monument, statue or painting in a gallery. But ultimately, just as the smartphone has spawned new industries and new human behaviors, augmented reality will eventually change in ways no one expects.
In the short term, real-world interactions seem to be high on Snap’s list. Snap has made no secret of its disdain for the metaverse and its belief that enhancing rather than replacing the real world is the way to go. “Part of the reason we’re so excited about the future of AR is that it’s opening up to the camera,” says Sophia Dominguez, director of AR platform partnerships at Snap. “It’s about leveraging the camera to enhance the world around you, not to take you somewhere else.”
Murphy also says he thinks Snapchat’s Scan feature has huge potential as a visual, real-world search engine modeled on Google Lens and that as Snap understands users and the world better, it can learn to more proactively offer this information (and, presumably, advertisements and shopping opportunities as well).
The company is working on creating world maps so that users can interact with virtually any object anywhere through their smartphone camera. The company already has detailed, interactive maps of select landmarks and cities, and Pan says that as more people share photos and live streams, things will quickly improve. “If a car is moving from place to place, you’ll be able to update and generate the model so you can really have these live experiences interacting with the whole world,” he says. Snap is also working on ways to make it easier for users to scan spaces, so you can map your own world on the fly.
Augmented reality is, for now, almost entirely a phone-based experience, but a wearable revolution could change both what works and how. Murphy says that obviously the glasses are going to change things up, both in frequency of use and in the user interface – how should things work when you have both hands free, for example? But he says he’s confident people will want the same things from AR, regardless of the hardware. “People open Snapchat and the camera more than 10 times a day,” he says. “It’s about the closest approximation to a wearable camera you can get.”
At the same time, Murphy acknowledges that no one knows everything about how AR works. He says the company is trying to build on what it knows works while experimenting with new ideas for the future. The key, at least for Snap, is to master the basics – like the lens carousel users are used to scrolling through to find fun things or how to access Scan with a long press. “It’s important that we do it really well,” Murphy says, “but what each of those things has allowed us to do is then create a much more flexible framework to then learn with a lot of different types of cases. use of AR.”
“When platforms succeed and fail, it’s about whether developers…are able to monetize.”
This will be the trick for the next few years, for Snap and for everyone. The industry is increasingly agreeing on the 10-year plan for AR, a world in which everyone wears glasses and projects everything from computer screens to video chat holograms to high-end video games. real-world quality. Charting a course from the present to this future will require plenty of hardware roadmaps and correct AI systems and will require an enormous amount of experimentation in everything from use cases to user interfaces.
But where will all this experimentation take place? This is the first fight Snap knows he has to win. If AR is going to be as big as everyone imagines, if it’s really going to be the successor to the smartphone, it’s only going to work with an entire industry building it. The prize for Snap, or whoever beats it to the punch, will be running the operating system of the future – and the ultra-lucrative app store within.
“At the end of the day,” says Dominguez, “when platforms succeed and fail, it’s about whether the developers and those building on the platform are able to monetize.” So far, rainbow mouths and sunglasses trials have given Snap an edge. If it can help developers stick around and make the case for others to jump in as well, it could retain that edge. If someone else beats Snap to the punch, the company won’t be saved by face lenses.
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