Gadgets

Snapchat hopes lens makers can make augmented reality useful

While Facebook is still trying To explain what a metaverse is, Snap has been working towards an entirely different vision for an AR-enabled future. Over the past four years, the company has recruited a small army of artists, developers, and other AR enthusiasts to help build its huge library of in-app AR effects.

Now Snap is tapping lens manufacturers – it has more than 250,000 – to make AR more useful. The company releases new tools that allow artists and developers to essentially create mini-apps in their lenses. And it’s working to get its hands on its latest AR innovation: its next-generation Spectacles that feature AR displays.

The goal, according to Sophia Dominguez, Head of AR Platform Partnerships at Snap, is to expand the possibilities of AR use while at the same time firmly rooting these experiences in the real world – not in the metaverse. “You don’t want to escape to another world,” she says of Snap’s philosophy. “For us, the world around us is magical and we can learn from it.” Instead, she says, the company wants to enable experiences that “bridge” digital and physical spaces and create “more useful applications” for AR.

Snap is leaving it up to developers to figure out exactly what a “useful” augmented reality lens is for now, but the company is introducing a number of new tools to help them create. At its annual Lens Fest event, Snap is also unveiling a new version of Lens Studio, the software that allows developers to create and publish lenses on Snapchat.

The latest version includes new APIs that allow AR creators to connect their effects to real-time information. The resulting lenses are almost like mini-apps in Snapchat lenses. For example, iTranslate enables developers to create lenses with real-time translation capabilities. Or check their preferred cryptocurrency with a lens powered by the FTX crypto platform. Weather data (via Accuweather) and stock market information (from Alpaca) will also be available, and the company plans to add more partners in the near future.

Snap

These types of lenses are even more fascinating in the context of Snapchat’s augmented reality glasses, its “next-gen” glasses. Snap showed the glasses for the first time earlier this year and said the device would only be available to a small number of AR developers and developers. Since then, the company has distributed its latest specs to hundreds of developers who have helped Snap figure out how far they can advance the technology and what new experiences AR glasses can bring.

That’s because with Spectacles, a “lens” doesn’t just have to be something that is placed on a selfie – it can add context to the world around you. For example, a developer who was experimenting with Spectacles recently unveiled a concept whereby stare out of a train window can reveal details of your location and the weather.

Nike has developed a Spectacles lens that enables runners to follow an AR pigeon on their route while viewing various animations.

Creator Brielle Garcia, who has also experimented with Spectacles, recently unveiled a concept for an AR menu that allows users to view 3D models of meals on a restaurant menu. Other developers are experimenting with interactive shopping and gaming lenses.

“When you think about what will make people wear glasses every day, these are the things you check your apps for today,” said Dominguez. “We’re really excited to see the different interfaces that people can create with this type of utility in augmented reality.”

A concept for an interactive 3D menu with Snapchats AR Spectacles.

Snap

All of this comes with one important caveat: the reason the AR Spectacles are not for sale, and probably won’t be anytime soon, is because of some pretty significant hardware limitations. The battery life is extremely limited (the charging case offers four additional charges) and the glasses themselves are, well, ugly.

While earlier versions of Spectacles look and feel like sunglasses, the next generation specs are weirdly large. Every time I see them, the only thing that comes to mind is the chunky black frame that Roddy Piper wears live in it. And after wearing them for some time, I can confirm that they look even more ridiculous when you wear them on your face.

That said, Snap did was clear from the start that this version is not supposed to look good, or even supposed to look the way people want to buy it. Rather, it’s about enabling new types of AR development.

Gallery: Snapchat’s next generation AR spectacle | 4 photos

Gallery: Snapchat’s next generation AR spectacle | 4 photos

And despite the looks, their skills are impressive. The frames are equipped with “3D waveguides” that supply the AR displays with power; as well as dual cameras, speakers and microphones. There is a record button on the left that allows you to take a photo or video of your surroundings, and on the right there is a scan button. Much like the feature of the same name in the Snapchat app, scanning can help you find lenses based on your surroundings.

I could only experiment with a handful of AR lenses while wearing the specs, but the process was strikingly similar to using lenses in the Snapchat app. I was able to scroll through a selection of lenses by swiping a touchpad on the outside of the frames. Then you can place the lens in your surroundings to see the AR effects around you. As with other AR headsets, the field of view is narrow enough not to be fully immersed, but I was impressed with the resolution and brightness of what I saw.

“‘I’ve worked on every generation of Spectacles and this is by far the most fun,” says David Meisenholder, Senior Product Designer at Snap, pointing to the company’s close collaboration with its developer community. “We’re also learning how much we have to do to make these perfect for the consumer eyewear of the future.”

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