The human desire to log the realities of everyday life is something that technology companies have been trying to turn into a successful product for years. With a new pair of smart glasses on offer, the company behind Snapchat hopes that the answer lies in simplicity.
Some of the strongest proponents of the life-logging movement have recently retired from the pursuit. But those early adopters sought to record everything, from sleep and steps to calorie intake and mood. Ultimately, they found the process difficult and unrewarding.
Google’s attempt to capitalize on the phenomenon with its Glass project struggled to take off. First announced in April 2013, the device later became available as part of the Explorer Program for the princely sum of $1,500. It was ultimately scrapped as a commercial product last year, sidelined instead to research and workplace use.
Glass had many problems. Certainly, its price made it an exclusive item. Privacy advocates worried ceaselessly about people snapping images without permission, coining the fabulous term “Glasshole” along the way. But perhaps its biggest failing was Google’s attempt to shoehorn a small computer, display, camera, microphone, and more into a diminutive frame. This was Google trying to invent the future, and failing.
Now Snap—the new name of Snapchat—thinks it can do better.
Where Glass was an exercise in speculative future-gazing, Snap’s new Spectacles are a study in pragmatism. The new sunglasses, which are styled like Ray-Bans, allow the wearer to record first-person video at the press of a button, shooting up to 30 seconds of circular video with a 115-degree field of view. The clips can then be transferred to a smartphone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, to be added to Snapchat.
That’s it. Nothing else to it.
Their simplicity—the very decision not to even attempt to break new technological ground—could be the very thing that cements their place in the future. Perhaps their most compelling feature is that they have a clear and distinct purpose: you can wear them, acquire first-person images and video of what you have done, and then quickly upload that material to the Web.
Snap does give Spectacles one particularly innovative touch: the circular video that the device shoots. In a stroke, that’s solved—for Snapchat, at least—the annoying problem of video appearing in the wrong orientation if people hold their phone in landscape view.
Snapchat just solved the portrait vs landscape video argument forever pic.twitter.com/iOsKeaeXkb
— Owen Williams⚡️ (@ow) September 24, 2016
At $130, the glasses are also easy on the wallet. Snap’s CEO, Evan Spiegel, referred to them as a “toy” in the Wall Street Journal interview in which they were announced, and he’s right. At that price, it’s a piece of hardware that can be purchased for good old-fashioned fun, or given to a teenager as a treat. Like any other toy, they’ll become their own advertising if they do sell well: while smartphones are inherently private devices, wearing a pair of Snap’s glasses alerts the world to what a person is doing, which may appeal to people looking to make a statement.
But that brings us to one of the major questions facing the device: who, exactly, is going to buy them?
The styling is undeniably youthful, and it’s easy enough to imagine a teenager lusting after a pair. But earlier this year, Snapchat’s vice president of content, Nick Bell, pointed out that two-thirds of its users are over 18, and 50 percent of new daily users are over 25. Those folks are more attractive to advertise to, because unlike teens, they tend to have money. But it’s not clear if Spectacles are the product to drive that adoption.
There’s also the pesky question of privacy. Glass suffered an onslaught of criticism for the ways in which it enabled snooping, and Snap will undoubtedly be seeking to avoid the same. It’s clearly at least considered the issue: the glasses light up when they’re recording, which may help. A little. But that feature is sure to be hacked within days of the device’s release.
What could act in Snap’s favor is volume. While Glass was the preserve of wealthy, middle-aged Silicon Valley types who were few and far between and easy to feel alienated by, cities awash with Spectacle-wearing Millennials could help normalize public video recording.
Not that will happen overnight. Spiegel told the Wall Street Journal that the company was “going to take a slow approach to rolling them out,” so that it can work through a process of “figuring out if it fits into people’s lives and seeing how they like it.” If it does, and they do, Spectacles could help Snap turn an idea that’s always proved unsuccessful into something that allows people to document their lives easily.
It could, perhaps, make life logging cool again.