The Snapchat founder, Evan Spiegel, has dismissed Facebook’s “metaverse” ambitions as “ambiguous and hypothetical” as he announced a raft of new augmented reality features coming to phones and Snap’s experimental AR Spectacles over the next year.
Speaking ahead of the Snap Partner Summit, the company’s flagship annual event, Spiegel argued Snapchat was uniquely placed to guide the next decade of technology thanks to the company’s vast array of augmented reality servicessuch as the “lenses” that are used by millions of people every day.
With 332 million daily users and a market cap of $46.95bn (£38bn), Snap is comfortably larger than Twitter, even after the acquisition offer for the latter from Elon Musk, but gets a fraction of the attention. “That’s something that sort of comes along with them being the ‘public town square’,” Spiegel says. “We’re happy with the value that we provide to our community – and society.”
He cites statistics that “over 90% of Snapchatters say they feel comfortable, happy, and connected when they use Snapchat”, which is “ranked the No 1 happiest platform when compared to other apps”.
“There’s now like 250 million people engaging with AR everyday on the smartphone alone,” Spiegel said. “And that’s on this tiny little screen that you’re looking through and you’re using your thumbs on. So we believe that trying to break some of those constraints, and go into a truly immersive and interactive AR experience, will be really important in the future.”
Snap’s latest Spectacles have only shipped in prototype form to creators around the world: with a 15- to 30-minute battery life and a severely restricted display, they are intended to inspire creators with the possibility of future versions of the same hardware. But, Spiegel says, the next generation is already in development.
“It just changes the way you interact when you can walk around and use your hands, and see computing brought to life. The strength of our AR glasses is the AR platform behind it, met with hundreds of millions of thousands of developers, millions of lenses, and really, really advanced tools that continue to evolve rapidly.”
Core to that evolution is an update called Lens Cloud that lets developers for both Snapchat and Spectacles build AR experiences that are firmly placed in the real world. One set of tools lets Lenses be anchored to any location around the world: Lego has used it to build virtual ferris wheels, rollercoasters and slides around the streets of central London.
Another feature lets two users of the same AR lens interact with each other for the first time, occupying the same virtual spaces and playing the same games.
The updates sound like they could be the foundations of a shared virtual universe of the type that Facebook recently decided was so fundamental to its future that it even rebranded the company as Meta. But, Spiegel says, the word “metaverse” is never uttered in Snap’s offices.
“The reason why we don’t use that word is because it’s pretty ambiguous and hypothetical. Just ask a room of people how to define it, and everyone’s definition is totally different.
“But one of the big overarching concepts people have is that a lot of those tools are designed to replace reality. Whereas when we talk about AR, we’re trying to augment the real world around you. So our fundamental bet is that people actually love the real world: they want to be together in person with their friends.
“And, of course, our vision is real today, with glasses that you can use today, and a platform that works at scale today. So we try to stay away from those hypotheticals, because we’re focused on what we’re building right now.”
Spiegel also revealed Pixy, “the world’s friendliest flying camera” – a palm-sized autonomous drone that can be used to capture outdoor activities. With a single button to control it, users just hold Pixy in their hand and select one of five modes, including “follow” – the drone will recognize and follow its owner taking video on the way – and “reveal” – the drone will fly to its maximum altitude and film the reverse pan as it goes.
“Everything you need to capture the spontaneity and fun of the moment from new perspectives is right in the palm of your hand,” Spiegel said. “There are no controllers. There’s no complex set-up. Simply select a flight path and let Pixy take it from there, floating above you as it captures photos and videos. And it knows when and where to return, landing gently in the palm of your hand.”
The device is available for purchase from Thursday for $229.99 to customers in the US and France.