Snapchat Stuck In Uncanny Valley Of AR Glasses

1 year ago

Augmented Reality Uncanny Valley

“Timing”, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel  said cryptically when asked what the greatest threat was for Snap Inc. “I think the big risks are always the really big product ideas that we’re investing in that are just hard to get right” he told the Goldman Sachs conference two weeks ago.

The statements got lost amongst flashier quotes. He defended the Snapchat redesign saying “Even the complaints we’re seeing reinforce the philosophy”, and described Snap’s office atmosphere as “just below the boil…. Like when you heat water, and it’s really fucking hot, but it’s just below the boil.”

Yet it’s his thoughts on ‘timing’ that give us the deepest insight into Snapchat’s toughest problem: overcoming reality.

“I think if we look at the future, there’s a lot of different components to what we’re trying to accomplish and timing is an important one of those — especially in the technology business, both in terms of consumers’ willingness to try new products, but also in terms of technological development and what that can power in a set amount of time. As I’m looking at the next decade, big products that we’re trying to develop, I think timing is a funny thing. That’s probably what I’ll have my eye on as we just continue to try to develop products, and we’re willing to wait to get ’em right but that’s probably the risk.”

For Snap, no idea is bigger than building augmented reality glasses that pack world-morphing features into a stylish form factor. I believe this is what Spiegel was hinting at. He knows Snap is mired in an uncanny valley between the lackluster truth of today’s augmented reality hardware, and the desireable AR gadgets that are years beyond our current engineering prowess.

Karl Lagerfeld’s photo of Snap CEO Evan Spiegel donning Spectacles for their September 2016 reveal

The fact is that no one has been able to build this. Google Glass flopped with consumers and pivoted to the enterprise. Magic Leap’s bulky headset requires a backpack or beltpack to power it, and is still just a rendering. Facebook has nothing to show and Apple has kept anything it’s tinkering with secret. Intel’s Vaunt glasses are perhaps the closest — small and stylish, but merely delivering text notifications and directions projected onto your retina.

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We’re still a long way from compact AR glasses that can overlay virtual objects onto the real world the way Snapchat’s smartphone app does. Perhaps years. And that’s the “timing” risk Spiegel described. Snap might be willing to wait, or more accurately, forced to wait. But the public markets might not be so patient, and bigger, better funded hardware-first companies are racing for the prize.

Just how slow Snapchat is inching towards the goal was revealed yesterday by Alex Heath of Cheddar’s stellar scoop on the future of Snap Spectacles. He reports that Snap is preparing to launch v2 of Spectacles later this year and v3 in 2019. But they won’t deliver on the fever dream of AR glasses that seamlessly alter our lives.

v1 of Spectacles emerged in Fall 2016 with a way to record circular first-person video from a camera built into frame. But getting the videos off the glasses and into your phone in high resolution proved a buggy hassle. Despite a hyped up launch with lines outside its Snap Bot vending machines in surprise locations, their utility was limited.

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Word of a new version of Spectacles might surprise some. Leaked data showed less than half of owners kept using them after a month with many ditching Spectacles after just a week. The best camera is the one you have with you. But between recharging via proprietary cable, their fragility, and their bulky triangular case, people rarely had their Spectacles when they needed them. Snap only sold about 150,000 pairs, with hundreds of thousands lying unsold in warehouses, and it registered a $40 million write-off on the hardware business.

After 2 years of improvements, Spectacles v2 will reportedly be…water resistant, available in new colors, and have fewer bugs. That’s little progress in a long time. And the launch has already missed internal deadlines.

v3 is due in 2019 and is supposed to be a little more ambitious with two cameras to add 3D depth effects to the videos they record. But that’s still a far cry from us digitally hallucinating a dancing hot dog through Spectacles themselves.

This all brings the “timing” problem into focus. Snapchat claims to be a “camera company” but doesn’t make smartphones, which everyone uses as cameras. It’s done plenty with just software, bringing augmented reality to the masses through puppy ears and rainbow puke. Still, the world is waiting for AR glasses, and Snap can’t make them yet.

What it has built, and what’s on its now-revealed roadmap for the next two years, doesn’t cut it. The concept known as the “uncanny valley” explains our revulsion to humanoid objects such as androids, life-like dolls, and 3D animation that don’t convincingly appear human. You’d expect that the more human-esque something looks, the more warmly we’d receive it. But in fact our positive perception drops into a valley until something reaches a high threshold of accuracy in mimicking humans.v

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