Apple's AR glasses might be waiting until 2022 (or later) to launch its AR headset, but serial smartglasses maker Snap Inc has just dropped the third generation of its Spectacles wearable.
However, the company says that adding AR technology to its Specs – which currently just put cameras on the faces of its "creators" – could be at least 10 years away.
“With version one it was about the whole concept of having a camera on a pair of sunglasses,” says Steen Strand, director of hardware at Snap Inc.
“In version two, it was about refining what we did with version one and elevating the design. We had the Nico and Veronica editions that hosted the same tech, but with a very different design language.
“Version three is all about adding this idea of depth. We know that depth is a very important aspect in terms of overlaying digital elements over a physical space.”
A long wait for AR smartglasses
On the Spectacles 3, that’s made possible through the inclusion of two cameras and the company’s own software algorithms to create a depth map that allows you to create immersive 3D photos and video.
It also supports the ability to add AR Snapchat Lenses and make them easier to export from outside of the Snapchat realms. That’s not done on the glasses themselves, but inside of the companion smartphone app after you’ve been out capturing.
The ambition is to merge the physical and the digital worlds, which can be viewed through eyewear that may or may not look like Snap’s latest generation Specs. Though according to Strand, it could be a while yet before you’re wearing those particular pair of tech-filled glasses.
“Evan Spiegel has thrown ten years out as a timeline, which is pretty reasonable,” he says. “We don’t see things happening before that, but we are chipping away at it. We think that time frame in terms of having a product that’s viable is a pretty reasonable time frame.”
So why decide to ship three pairs of glasses that don’t offer those augmented reality features?
“You can’t learn until you put it out there,” says Strand. “We gained a lot by having more people using it and people from different backgrounds try these out. It’s not like creating a new orange juice where you know all the parameters and you can tweak this.”
That's a brave decision. According to reports, the company lost $40 million on the first generation Specs and a warehouse full of unsold stock.
“This is a journey that is getting us to that eventual AR future,” he said.
“Each step on the journey is an important part in helping you get somewhere.
“We preach the philosophy that if you put something out in the world you will get something out of it that we couldn’t have got on our own. We’ve started the journey, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The obstacles to building AR smartglasses
It’s well aware of the companies that lean more into the tech side, but then don’t care about the wearability side of things.
Strand believes tech companies need to strike the right balance between what he says are the human needs of the product and the technology.
“There’s a technology part of that in the sense that how to we display things. How do we place things in the world so they don’t move around. Engineering issues like power consumption. How do you get enough power into it without encountering thermo issues. There’s a bunch of things that need to be optimised.”
“We have to solve the tech problem and the content problem,” he said. “We could put five cameras on here and that would make it work better, but that’s not the answer for the consumer. It’s balancing out those competing factors. All of this leads to building that AR future.”
The privacy piece of the puzzle
There’s another human aspect that comes into play when we talk about wearing glasses that have cameras built into them. It’s one thing building something that people will want to wear, but it’s another thing to deal with ensuring they are being used in the right way.
Strand says the stance taken on privacy for Snapchat rolls over into Spectacles, but accepts there is still things it will learn over time as more people use them. “There’s a lot to be figured out about how this type of product sits in society,” he said.
“You have to think about the individual and the people around you. What’s the whole etiquette of recording this and sharing that? Let’s just be respectful of people.
All with the view that these £330 smartglasses are another small (but important) stepping stone towards getting the kind of augmented reality glasses that many believe will become a replacement for our smartphones. The question is whether Snap will be at the forefront of that movement in ten years time or whether it’s thunder will be stolen by another company with more money to play with.
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