Augmented reality isn’t really a thing yet. But do you know what is? Face lenses. Millions of users on Snapchat, Instagram, Zoom, TikTok, and countless other apps are already accustomed to tapping a button and suddenly having donkey ears attached to their skulls, rainbows shooting out of their mouths, or their makeup subtly – or not so subtly – transformed into a new style. Most users don’t think of this as AR or see these features as evidence of some revolutionary new technology. But whether you call it lenses, filters or anything else, it’s all augmented reality.
At this week’s Lensfest developer event, Snap announced that it now has more than 300,000 developers building AR products for its platform, and together they have built more than 3 million lenses that have been viewed a staggering 5 trillion times. All of those numbers are up over a year ago, and to Snap, they’re proof that AR is already finding a product-market fit.
Snap’s big news at this year’s Lensfest is all about monetization. Snap has teamed up with a number of makers to build Lenses that contain purchasable digital goods — think in-game items, improved lens controls, that sort of thing — that users can buy with Snap Tokens. The plan borrows ideas from the in-game economies of platforms such as roblox and Fortnite, with just a hint of NFT craze. Either way, Snap hopes it helps developers make money now and encourages them to keep building in the future. “We are very optimistic that this will provide Snapchatters with more opportunities to pay for the value they get in our experience,” said Snap CTO Bobby Murphy, “thus motivating even more investment, time and effort, and improving the quality level around use.” cases.”
Translation: AR is good. It’s going to get better. But it will only become big if it is also a big company.
A new monetization tool may sound like a small bet in AR’s evolution, but it’s a significant gamble for Snap. No one knows the power of an ecosystem better: From disappearing messages to Stories to Bitmoji to lenses, Snap has a well-deserved reputation as the R&D hub for other tech giants, who then copy Snap’s ideas and distribute them to a wider audience and a more lucrative developer ecosystem . With AR, Snap is determined not to let the cycle repeat itself. That means building the product and company before anyone else does.
Building an AR business is also critical to Snap’s long-term prospects. The company knows that face lenses on a smartphone aren’t the final form of AR — its long-term vision for augmented reality includes special glasses, always-on experiences, and software that understands exactly what you’re looking at and what you might want. have to do with. “If I choose to put a piece of hardware on my face,” says Qi Pan, Snap’s director of computer vision engineering, “it has to add value to my life almost every minute I wear it; otherwise I’ll choose to not to do it.”
That’s a high bar, and no one is reaching it. However, Murphy says he’s confident the company will get there. “This future that has seemed super distant for years actually feels closer than I would have even guessed a few years ago,” he says. Snap’s latest version of Spectacles has been in developer hands for over a year now, and while it’s still a primitive gadget — with long battery life and overheating issues and a relatively low resolution and small field of view — Murphy says it’s enough has seen to convince him that Snap is on the right track.
However, if Snap is to achieve its vision, it needs to be right about both the ten-year plan and how to get from here to there without killing the company in the process. Long-term betting takes time, and the current economic moment in particular doesn’t really allow for that: Amazon has had to cut back on Alexa because it can’t figure out how to monetize its voice assistant, Meta’s decade-long metaverse bet has played a role in plummet in the company’s share price, and even Snap has had to cut back on some of its more exploratory projects, such as the flying Pixy drone. Inventing the future is expensive and risky, even in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
How is AR supposed to work, you know?
Figuring out 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 are only a few things the industry seems to know for sure. Face lenses are a winner. So does virtual fitting, 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 whole new industries and human behaviors, AR will eventually change in ways no one expects.
In the short term, real-world interactions seem to be at the top of Snap’s list. Snap has made no secret of its contempt for the metaverse and its belief that improving rather than replacing the real world is the way forward. “Part of the reason we’re so excited about the future of AR is because it’s opening up to the camera,” said Sophia Dominguez, Snap’s director of AR platform partnerships. “It uses the camera to enhance the world around you, not take you somewhere else.”
Murphy also says he thinks Snapchat’s scanning feature has huge potential as a visual, real-world search engine along the lines of Google Lens and that as Snap gets better at understanding users and the world, it can learn to use that information. more proactively (and, presumably, advertising and shopping opportunities as well).
The company is working on building maps of the world so that users can interact with virtually any object from anywhere via their smartphone camera. The company already has detailed, interactive maps of some landmarks and cities, and Pan says as more people share photos and live streams things will get better soon. “As a car moves from one place to another, you can update and generate the model so you can really have these live experiences interacting with the whole world,” he says. Snap is working on ways to make it easier for users to scan spaces too, so you can instantly map out your own world.
AR is almost entirely a phone-based experience for now, but a wearable revolution could change both what works and how. Murphy says glasses will naturally change things, both in frequency of use and user interface – how are things supposed to work when you have both hands free, for example? But he says he’s confident people want the same things from AR, regardless of hardware. “People open Snapchat and the camera more than 10 times a day,” he says. “That’s about as close to a wearable camera as you can get.”
At the same time, Murphy acknowledges that no one knows everything about how AR is going to work. He says the company is trying to build on what it knows works while also experimenting with new ideas about the future. The key, at least for Snap, is getting the hang of the basics – like the carousel of lenses that users swipe through to find cool stuff or the way to access Scan by tapping and holding. “It’s important that we do that really well,” says Murphy, “but what we’ve all been able to do is create a much more flexible framework to then learn with many different types of AR use cases.”
“When platforms succeed and fail, the question is whether the developers … are able to make money.”
That will be the trick for years to come, for Snap and for everyone else. The industry is increasingly agreeing with the ten-year plan for AR, a world where everyone wears glasses and projects everything from computer screens to video chat holograms to high-end video games onto the real world. Mapping the course from the present to that future requires a lot of hardware roadmaps and AI systems to get right and a huge amount of experimentation, from use cases to user interfaces.
But where will all that experimentation take place? That’s the first battle that Snap knows it needs to win. If AR becomes as big as everyone imagines, if it really becomes the successor to the smartphone, it will only work if an entire industry is built for it. The prize for Snap, or the one that does it faster, will be to run the operating system of the future – and the ultra-lucrative app store within it.
“Ultimately,” says Dominguez, “when platforms succeed and fail, what matters is whether the developers and those building on the platform can make money.” So far, rainbow mouth and sunglass suits have given Snap an edge. If it can help developers stick around and make it worth the investment for others to jump in as well, it can maintain that edge. If someone else beats Snap, the company won’t be saved by face lenses.