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The Snapchat Spectacles craze, explained

Amelia Krales and James Bareham / The Verge

With each holiday season comes a new hard-to-get item. This year Snapchat’s spectacles hold that crown (sharing the role with Nintendo’s NES rerelease). The camera-enabled sunglasses record video and let you upload to Snapchat, just like your phone.

Getting my hands on a pair of Snapchat Spectacles last month wasn't easy. The glasses are made available in random locations at any given moment. Luckily for me and the rest of New York City, Snapchat's opened a store in the Big Apple for the holidays. Still, I had to wait in line for five hours to get my pair. Which is actually on the low end: some Snapchat fans are reporting having to wait eight hours to 10 hours in the cold for their pair. (Fortunately Snapchat has taken steps to reduce wait times.)

Why are people so excited? While shifting a camera from the back of the phone to the side of a pair of sunglasses might seem like a minor change, it actually can make it a lot more useful in certain situations. Everyone wants footage of baby’s first steps, but few want to shove a phone in their child’s face. Nor do parents want to experience that poignant rite of passage through a screen.

In short, Snapchat Spectacles will allow millions of people to do something they’re doing already — capturing short snippets of video to save or share with friends — in a way that’s more elegant and less intrusive than a smartphone camera. And by tightly integrating the product with the Snapchat app, Snap Inc. (the new name for the company behind Snapchat) is giving its tens of millions of users yet another reason to use the app regularly.

Spectacles make it easier for Snapchat users to do what they’re already doing

Snap unveiled Snapchat Spectacles last month. The $129 pair of glasses has a camera embedded on the right side and an indicator light on the left. Press the single button located in the top left once and the glasses will record 10 seconds of video. Hit it again and it will record for another 10 seconds. While recording, you can press and hold the button to stop recording.

Snapchat’s Spectacles have the obvious benefit of being hands-free -- meaning you can record video while biking or playing fetch with the dog -- for example. But also the device blends in better than something like a GoPro, meaning you won’t get stares while at the dog park. Spectacles are great for recording video during outdoor activities or during tasks that require both your hands.

Activities in which Spectacles make sense are numerous: rock-climbing, concert-going, playing with a baby, etc.

Videos are transferred over using the Snapchat app. Watching video recorded with the Spectacles in most apps will appear as a circular video inside of a white square. Watch Spectacle video in Snapchat’s app, however, and the phone will display a rectangular slice of the video fixed to the center of that circle. This allows you to see full-screen video whether you have the phone oriented vertically, horizontally, or at an angle.

For creative types, Spectacles let you create Snapchat art that’s more dynamic, like the ones from artist Pinotski.

Making the resulting video tiltable only in Snapchat is a clever way to keep buyers in the app and viewers asking how the heck did they do that — especially with other social networks eager to take Snapchat’s ideas.

Snapchat spectacles are a weird mix of trendy and boastful

So there’s a potential market for Spectacles. But Snap still faced a challenge getting people to wear a gadget on their faces. The last major technology-on-your-face product, Google Glass, didn’t catch on with consumers. A big reason was that owners garnered insults like “glasshole” from people who didn’t like having a camera shoved in their faces all the time.

But Spectacles have not garnered the same hostility, and a big reason is because they’re simpler and more transparent. Spectacles are simply an extra set of eyes for your Snapchat account. You can tell if a pair of Spectacles is recording video by looking for the white spinning light in the top-left corner on the glasses’ facade — if that light is off, you’re not being filmed. The limited feature list and transparency of Spectacles could be a boon for social acceptance.

Snap is also using another trick to boost social acceptance: using artificial scarcity to make the sunglasses seem hard to get. The company, most likely, has more than enough of the plastic sunglasses to go around. But by initially limiting how many people can get them, Snap is helping to give the glasses an aura of exclusivity that will make everyone who doesn’t have them jealous. And Snap hopes that all those people will go out and buy their own pairs once they become widely available.

The Spectacles are a weird mix of trendy and boastful. In a world where social media demands we broadcast the highlights of our life, gadgets like the Spectacles let the medium in which we distribute our brag message be a brag in itself. The moment someone accidentally tilts their phone and sees there’s more to the scene is the moment you’re awarded with extra cool points: a raised eyebrow, surprised look, or, (if you’re lucky), an inbox message validating your coolness.

Those who don’t understand Spectacles right away are likely among the same people who also don’t get Snapchat’s appeal. Why share a disappearing photo when you can just text it to me? Why record video with sunglasses when you can just hold your phone up? The difference in each case: One is simply more fun.

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