Snapbot Spectacles

The wearable tech war has moved on to eyewear as augmented and virtual reality start to gain more traction.

Snapchat is the latest company to introduce techie glasses, but Silicon Valley bigwigs Facebook and Apple are also keen on giving users a new way to see the world.

Snapchat parent Snap Inc. recently began deploying “Snapbots” — vending machines that sell its connected sunglasses, called Spectacles — in surprise locations throughout the U.S., including a New York pop-up store that garnered long lines in freezing temperatures.

With its first physical product, Snap is working hard to steer clear of the pitfalls that ultimately doomed Google Glass.

“Snap is employing a gradual, viral, grass-roots approach to both seed Spectacles in the minds of its target audience while also simultaneously getting an early read on issues like privacy,” said Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder. “A slower rollout gives the device more time to establish an identity — which Snap will shepherd carefully.”

Privacy was a major concern that undermined Google Glass in the eyes of the consumer, as wearers could surreptitiously record people, and the devices were banned from some businesses. “The perception that someone is recording me in public places made a lot of people uncomfortable, and really poisoned Glass’ reputation,” Gownder said.

Spectacles have a video camera that records circular videos and can be added to Snapchat using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. In addition to being sunglasses, they have lights that indicate when they are recording.

They also are more of a novelty — for now.

“Smart glasses can superimpose digital information over the user’s field of view, augmenting the world with images and digital information,” Gownder said. So far, Spectacles are just a pair of glasses with a video camera — but that could change. Snapchat earlier this month, added “World Lenses” that use AR to add images to the outward-facing camera (in the vein of Pokemon), rather than just selfies.

Augmented reality and virtual reality, and thus eyewear devices, have become a primary thrust for tech companies. “This is a big game, because smart glasses could someday in the future — five years? — rival smartphones,” Gownder said.

In October, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the use of AR and VR using the company’s Oculus headset at a live demonstration, and Google introduced a new VR headset called Daydream View.

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook said this fall that he was banking on augmented reality, which adds a digital image to a user’s field of vision (while virtual reality offers and view of an entirely simulated reality).

“AR will become really big. VR I think is not going to be that big, compared to AR. I’m not saying it’s not important, it is important,” Cook said at the Utah Tech Tour. He added that he’s betting on AR because few people think it’s acceptable to be tethered to a computer or to be enclosed in something, as in a VR headset.

It is one of Silicon Valley’s worst-kept secrets that Apple has been hiring engineers who are likely working on a form of smart glasses.

Spectacles are a far cry from Google’s techie-looking, $1,500 iteration. In keeping with Snap’s playful, Millennial-friendly ethos, Spectacles are positioned as a $130 novelty. They come in three colors, and customers can only buy a limited quantity, but they are already reselling on eBay for four times that much.

The secretive aspect, which extends to the number of products available, fuels customer anticipation and results in considerable social media hype, while the photo-worthy locations provide worthy backdrops for Snapchatters’ first shared Spectacles content.

Temporary Snapbot “landings” include Venice, Big Sur and the Santa Monica Pier in California; Catoosa, Okla., and the Grand Canyon. Each vending machine is there for about 24 hours, although the New York store will be open through New Year’s Eve.

Apple would be doing something very different, likely in the form of augmented or mixed reality smart glasses, such as what Microsoft HoloLens or Magic Leap offer, Gownder said.

Cook said that indeed, AR would take a while to take off, due to technology challenges there. “But it will happen in a big way, and we will wonder when it does, how we ever lived without it. Like we wonder how we lived without our phone today,” he said.