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Snapchat’s new Spectacles show that Evan Spiegel is playing the long game

Spectacles are just fun right now. They’ll become important down the line.

Snapchat releases the second version of its Spectacles.

Snapchat released a new version of its video-recording sunglasses on Thursday, a waterproof pair that look and feel much like the originals.

They’re pretty fun — the glasses let you snap a photo or record a video and share it directly to your phone; they’re basically a fun way to capture a moment from the wearer’s perspective.

The truth is, though, that Spectacles aren’t a big business. The company says that it shipped 220,000 pairs of its first-generation Spectacles, a number the company considers a success, but that doesn’t move the needle for Snapchat’s business. Of last year’s revenue, 97 percent came from advertising. Even worse, the company ended up reporting a one-time $40 million expense last year to account for excess Spectacles inventory it couldn’t sell.

Photo of Snapchat’s new Spectacles sunglasses that allows you to take video or take photos while you wear them
The new Snapchat Spectacles
Cynthia Gil for Recode

So why is Snapchat bothering with a new version of these same glasses? In order to understand, you need to fast-forward to the year 2028 — or somewhere around there.

Snap, which calls itself a “camera company,” is preparing for a world where cameras no longer live on the smartphone in your pocket. They might actually live on your face.

Many of the world’s most powerful tech visionaries believe that one day you’ll interact with the world around you while constantly looking through a lens that provides extra context — so-called “augmented reality” or AR. That could be something as simple as adding the temperature to your field of vision, or something as complex as using facial-recognition technology to pull up the name and title of whomever you happen to be talking to.

If Snapchat and CEO Evan Spiegel believe that future is the future, the company wants to be prepared.

Building Spectacles gives Snap a relatively low-stress opportunity to improve its own hardware expertise — writing off some excess inventory of a version-one product is a pretty small price to pay now if it improves the company’s much larger, long-term future.

But the other key with Spectacles is getting people comfortable with wearing a camera on their face and interacting with augmented-reality features. This vision is the same reason Snapchat is building its own AR features, like face-distorting masks, and encouraging other developers to do the same, and why it’s building a messaging app it hopes people use for all of their communication.

“We decouple them so that they’re all allowed to develop on their own until they come together,” Spiegel recently told Wired in an interview. “Over the next decade or so, the way that these pieces fit together will probably be what defines our company.”

Photo of Snapchat’s new Spectacles with camera and video capability. It’s also waterproof.
Snapchat’s new Spectacles
Cynthia Gil for Recode

Getting people comfortable with camera glasses or AR won’t happen overnight. Google first started building augmented-reality glasses five years ago — they freaked people out. Facebook is using virtual reality as its stepping stone to its own AR glasses.

“I think everyone would basically agree that we do not have the science or technology today to build the AR glasses that we want,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Recode a year ago. “We may in five years, or seven years, or something like that. But we’re not likely to be able to deliver the experience that we want right now.”

That’s basically what Snapchat is thinking, too. Putting its goofy face filters and private messaging technology into a pair of glasses that people would actually wear isn’t really a possibility right now. But fun video-recording sunglasses? Sure, why not!

Snapchat believes the camera is the future of communication. Spectacles represent an early effort at perfecting that camera.

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