Snap has been building toward a post-smartphone world to create a cohesive AR ecosystem and its own version of alternative reality.
- "We’ve been taking a step-by-step approach to how we think of the camera as a platform and have continued to execute on that vision," Eitan Pilipski, VP at Snap, told Business Insider.
- Many researchers believe that the next big tech platform will be powered by augmented reality.
- Snap is poised to dominate this new tech platform because by getting people to use its camera for fun, it has reached a critical mass of users, experts say.
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First, you could give yourself puppy ears or make yourself barf rainbows. Then, you could overlay a dancing hot dog and other objects onto physical surfaces being captured by your mobile camera. And now, you can make recognizable landmarks like the Eiffel Tower come to life with just a tap.
Snapchat has been pushing its way into augmented reality for years with these playful features. Another new one, Landmarkers, which uses AR to transform iconic landmarks in real-time — may seem like just another step in that direction.
But piece these efforts together, and a pattern begins to emerge. Snap has been building toward a post-smartphone world where experiential computing transcends mobile screens, and it’s trying to create a cohesive AR ecosystem and its own version of alternative reality.
"We’ve been taking a step-by-step approach to how we think of the camera as a platform, and have continued to execute on that vision," Eitan Pilipski, VP at Snap, told Business Insider. "Allowing our community to use the technology for self-expression has opened up new possibilities for us in terms of what the future of the camera as a platform looks like."
Snap is racing to build an AR ecosystem
Many researchers believe that the next big tech platform, after the internet and social media, will be powered by augmented reality. Real-world images will blend with computer-generated visuals, with the physical and virtual planes eventually becoming one.
These researchers also believe that such a world will, at least in part, rely on a fundamental shift from mobile phones to the camera, which has already evolved into a multipurpose visual tool. Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel embraces this thinking.
"In the past, cameras were clunky pieces of hardware… Today, cameras are software, a window into the way that we experience the world," Spiegel said during his keynote at Snap’s Partner Summit in Los Angeles last week. "Our camera lets the natural light from our world penetrate the darkness of the internet… and allows people to use computing in their natural environment… the real world."
Snap has been saying for years that it’s a camera company and pushing into AR with its first interactive lens in 2015, and announced a slew of new AR-related updates and features at the Summit.
It expanded Lens Studio to let developers build Lenses that can track people’s hands, bodies and pets, in addition to their facial features; rolled out Landmarkers; announced new partnerships with Photomath and Giphy; and made it easier for people to use AR by putting all its related features in one place, called the "AR Bar."
Spectacles, Snap’s first foray into wearables, flopped, with Snap admitting that it sold only 150,000 pairs in the product’s first year and writing down $40 million in unsold Spectacles. But Pilipski said building such an ecosystem of users, developers and partners prepares the company for the shift from augmented reality on mobile devices to other devices.
"There is going to be a time when computing will overlay the physical world, and different companies are taking different approaches to prepare for that time," he said. "We think communication and expression in the camera is the best use of such technology right now, and puts us in a position to act and innovate when the time is right."
Spiegel’s also hinted at its plans, said BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield, noting that Spiegel led the Summit keynote by calling Snapchat a "camera platform" rather than a "camera company."
And it actually has the necessary scale
Other companies like Blippar, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Magic Leap, and Niantic, all have made some sort of an AR investment. But they don’t have the engaged community or the daily usage required to scale that Snap has, said Victoria Petrock, digital marketing and new technology analyst at eMarketer.
By embracing AR’s fun and silly applications, Snap got audiences comfortable with AR. Today, three-fourths of Snap’s 186 million daily active users play with Lenses each day, according to the company. That adds up to about 15 billion plays to date, giving Snap a massive repository of data to get insights from. Turns out, all the dancing hot dogs and barfing rainbows were not for nothing.
Snap also seems to have realized that to succeed long-term, it needs to rely more on its community of users, developers, and other partners.
The company has made itself more open to advertisers, and given developers and users more ways to use AR. Its AR developer platform Scan, for example, lets users scan and unlock Lenses on the Snapchat camera based on their environment. Some see these efforts as clues into its AR Cloud plans.
Through Lens Studio, which lets anyone build and distribute Lenses on Snapchat, the company has also cultivated influencers or creators that are distinct from other platforms’ in that they build for the AR medium. These creators are getting a designated home on the app with "Creator Profiles," where they can show off the Lenses they’ve built.
The company is also ensuring that AR is used beyond just Snapchat. Lenses are coded to be compatible not just with iOS and Android but future AR hardware platforms, said a Snapchat spokesperson.
"If they can tap the collective wisdom of everyone creating Lenses, they have a lot more training data than anyone else," said Petrock. "This makes their AR platform more robust than others."
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