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Snapchat’s camcorder goggles are creepy cool and kind of brilliant

A refreshingly bold move by Evan Spiegel.

Snap Snapchat Spectacles
Snap’s new Spectacles homepage.

Snapchat’s first hardware product is a pair of $130 sunglasses that shoot first-person bursts of circular, wide-angle video.

The Spectacles, as they’re called, are designed to make it easy to record what you’re actually seeing, in the moment, without having to awkwardly fish your giant smartphone out of your pocket and hold it in front of your face.

The resulting recording is intended to be more lifelike, too.

“It’s one thing to see images of an experience you had, but it’s another thing to have an experience of the experience,” Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel said in the Wall Street Journal magazine feature unveiling the gadget, describing a vacation he took with his fiancée. “It was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I was there again.”

Whether or not these Spectacles popularize circular footage the way Snapchat did for vertical video, it’s an audacious new project for Spiegel and Snapchat, which he has renamed Snap Inc. — “a camera company.”

That’s in part because the last big camera-goggles launch, Google Glass, went about as poorly as possible.

Glass, a too-serious attempt to put a computer on your face, looked ridiculous in a bad-taste, cyborg way. It introduced a creepy privacy violation — a face-mounted camera that you, as a bystander, couldn’t control — with poor explanation. Its early adopters, “Explorers” who spent $1,500 for the privilege, were derided as “Glassholes,” widely mocked, and sometimes abused. The whole thing came across as a poorly planned embarrassment.

Spiegel is obviously trying to avoid these problems.

Spectacles look like a funny, laid-back play on designer sunglasses. They’re cheap enough to be an impulse purchase for many, or a reasonable gift. He’s positioning them as a “toy.” A leaked video suggests they light up very obviously when shooting, though the subtle recording is still a potential privacy issue.

That’s not to say they’ll look particularly cool on your face, or become trendy or even necessarily normal. But with these, your friends might at least be laughing with you, not at you. Or maybe they’ll even have a pair.

Strategically, though, Spectacles are potentially brilliant.

Spiegel has long referred to Snapchat as a “camera” business, but it has always been an app riding on whatever smartphone you used.

If Spectacles can intercept the smartphone camera and become the creative device that people use for any decent amount of recording — in what seems to be a proprietary format, with a custom-designed distribution network in Snapchat — that’s a pretty awesome position to be in.

Not to mention the potential hardware revenue — a diversification from mobile video ads — or the possibility to someday also include transparent displays in the glasses, integrated viewing software, and whatever else a tool like that could be capable of: Augmented-reality apps? Mixed-reality video calls? Or just fun videos from your friends?

It’s the kind of sneaky sophistication that would be easy to shrug off when you look at Spiegel and think about Snapchat through the lens of silly animal filters and Cosmo videos. And it might totally flop or fizzle.

But it’s a refreshingly bold move. And if it works, it could be big.

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