September 5, 2018 at 03:36PM
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The new sunnies look less like the circular Spectacles of yore, and more like something a knock-off Anna Wintour might wear, were she interested in being on the other side of the paparazzo’s lens. They come with all the capabilities of Snap’s second generation Spectacles: improved image quality, dual microphones, and water-resistant frames. A button on the left side controls video and still photo capture. The new styles—called the Veronica and the Nico—cost $199, compared to $150 for the ones released earlier this year.
For Snap’s die-hard fans, the new designs usher in a sleeker, more stylish era of Spectacles. But for Snap’s critics, the new hardware doesn’t quite square. Many of the target market has long since traded Snapchat for Instagram and think the idea of wearing a face camera seems ridiculous, which begs the question: Why is Snap still making hardware?
Making a Spectacle
Spectacles rolled out in 2016, bringing Snap’s camera software off phones for the first time. The circular glasses came in turquoise, orange, or black, all with bright yellow rings encircling the small cameras on the sides. To create hype, Snap sold them out of pop-up vending machines, which produced ridiculously long lines and considerable social media buzz. But a few months later, the vending machines disappeared along with the excitement, and Snap got stuck with hundreds of thousands of unsold pairs.
If hardware is the future of the company, it’s not clear where Snap is going.
Still, the experiment proved that Snap could make the kind of high-tech hardware that so many companies in Silicon Valley see as the future. So it went for Round Two. In the second generation, Snap made some critical changes. First, it ditched the vending machines and instead sold the glasses online. Second, it added some user-requested features, like waterproofing, easier export capabilities, and the ability to take still photos. Snap says it gutted the glasses and replaced the insides with a better image processor and smaller battery to make the frames lighter on your face.
The two new styles keep all of those capabilities, with one more important change: They don’t look like a Snap product anymore. No longer are they cartoonishly circular; they don’t look discernibly unlike shades you might wear otherwise, until you press record and a ring of LEDs light up around the cameras on the side. Long gone are the bright yellow rings, and these styles forgo Snap’s candy-colored frames. Both new Spectacles are all black and come with polarized lenses.
Even the footage captured on Spectacles is becoming less discernibly Snap. Before, Spectacles exported videos in a circular format that only looked right when viewed within the Snapchat app. After releasing the second generation of Spectacles, the company issued a software update that made it possible to save videos and stills in square and horizontal formats; now, you can also auto-save to your phone’s camera roll, bypassing the Snapchat app altogether. The new styles are the first to have these capabilities at launch. It’s one signal that the company is thinking of its glasses as something new altogether—like a GoPro for your face—rather than just a way to feed back into its own app.
Eventually, Snap sees a future where its hardware and software converge. The company has spent years developing a set of augmented reality tools that set the Snapchat app apart (and made it worth copying). One day, the company will need those camera tools to show up somewhere other than on your phone. Building its own hardware to house all that tech seems like a pretty good idea.
But so far, Spectacles haven’t been the slam-dunk Snap needs. The company had to write off $40 million in unsold inventory of the first version. Its second version may have fared slightly better, but recent earning reports still fell short of expectations. Earlier this summer, Mark Randall, Snap’s VP of hardware, left the company. If hardware is the future of the company, it’s not clear where Snap is going.
Yet hardware could be Snap’s last chance at snapping back, especially after the mass exodus from its social app. Snap has always seen itself as a camera company, and making its own hardware cameras—especially ones as sleek and wearable as the new styles—could be one way to prove its worth. But it’s a gamble. If this third iteration of Spectacles flops, it could signal bad news to the investors keeping the company afloat. And if the new Spectacles work? It’ll only be a matter of time before someone copies them.