Product Thoughts: Snapchat Spectacles
Updated: Jan 9, 2019
What are they?
Snapchat Spectacles are IoT-connected sunglasses with an integrated camera. The glasses capture videos and photos in a unique 360-degree circular format, and they integrate directly with the Snapchat app for sharing. Spectacles originally released in 2016, and a second version was recently introduced in early 2018.
Spectacles are targeted at Snapchat users, because the product only works if connected with the Snapchat app, and the videos/photos are otherwise inaccessible. Snapchat’s users are primarily millennials and gen-z, roughly between 15-30 years old. Spectacles specifically target users’ desires to share stories and capture memories. Users have three primary motivations to capture content with Spectacles: to save for their personal memories, to share what they're doing with close friends, or to show off what they're doing on their Snap Story. The product has a number of unique features that draw Snapchatters to use it, including an immersive 360-degree viewing experience, the ability to take a video with the click of a button, and wireless content downloading. I'll explore these features in-depth a bit later.
What I love about Spectacles
It may seem odd to love a product that is well-known to be a huge commercial failure, but there is a lot that I really enjoy about Spectacles. Snapchat’s intention was to create a product that introduces a more native and unfiltered way of capturing your life, and I think that Spectacles do a great job of achieving this. The product definitely isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot of things I like.
People are constantly viewing life literally through the screens on their phone, instead of looking up and seeing things in real time. Go to any museum, sports game, or concert, and people are carefully snapping every moment on their iPhones, without giving much notice to the live spectacle (pun intended) happening right in front of them. It's nonsensical, frustrating, and unfulfilling. While I understand that every phone having an HD camera makes it easy to capture memories and share them with the world, we lose the sense of being “in the moment”. The point of these videos are to bring you back to interesting moments in life, but how can that happen if you were never really present in the first place?
I’ve personally taken my Specs to high-ropes courses, ski slopes, and crowded music festivals, and the advantage here is clear: I can share cool experiences in HD while still feeling immersed in the experience. Spectacles allow me to capture memories simply by pushing a button on the top, so I can see what is happening in real time, while the camera still captures the moment from my point of view.
The process of using the glasses is pretty seamless as well. The control mapping is easy to learn and intuitive–one button push for a ten second video, and push up to three times for a video up to thirty seconds long. Holding down the button takes a photo. While recording, an LED inside the frames lights up to give you feedback that the camera is working, while a ring of flashing LEDs on the outside (pictured above) show others that you’re recording too. Connecting with the app now works via a simple bluetooth pairing, an upgrade from the slower process of scanning a QR code with V1 Specs. All content is downloaded in HD through WiFi, and a video only takes about 3 seconds to download.
Another feature that I immediately loved was the way that the glasses charge. The charging port is located at the hinge between the lenses and earpieces, and the glasses magnetically snap into their case for a charge. The magnet holds the Specs in place quite well, and the design feels robust and well-executed.
V1 --> V2
What the first version of Specs left to be desired, Snapchat did a pretty great job of cleaning up with V2. While the failure of V1 was partly due to marketing and launch decisions, not just product design, there were plenty of drawbacks that Snapchat needed to fix.
For one, the use case for Specs wasn’t too clear. People just didn’t feel like they could do all that much with them. Maybe that’s why over half of users stopped using after just one month. The novelty of taking 360-degree videos of your pet is cool at first, but isn't so great after a few weeks. I took my pair snowboarding once, but I think I almost ruined the electronics when I wiped out face-first in the snow. It just didn’t feel like they were meant for outdoor activities, so the only real use cases I felt made sense were things like music festivals and sporting events. Clearly, Spectacles needed a feature to make them more versatile and usable in all situations.
V2 added water-resistant electronics, touting the ability to take Specs for a swim or use them during a day at the beach. You can take your phone to a concert, but using it to capture outdoor activities like swimming and skiing is impractical, which is why V2 Spectacles excel in this area. Plus, this type of content is likely to be more interesting and engaging for viewers.
Another issue I noticed was in the physical design itself. There’s no other way to put this, but V1 just felt “clunky”. The electronics housing seemed too big, the shape of the glasses hugged my face too much, and the earpieces curved down too sharply at the ends, making it awkward to take the glasses off my head. While there were some design details that I loved, it seems like many others were overlooked. Not to mention the oversized, oddly-shaped, awkward to open case, with its yellow felt interior that constantly rubbed off on the glasses’ lenses.
V2 reduced the size of the electronics housing, spruced up the design to make it a bit more subdued-modern, and slimmed down the case. Snapchat ditched the signature yellow circle around the camera, since people felt that these drew too much attention to the product. It just felt too uncomfortably futuristic. As far as getting more user adoption, a pair of glasses that feel more normal and don’t scream “I’m recording you” seem more likely to win over consumers. If Google Glass taught us anything, it's that camera glasses are kind of creepy, so to change consumer behavior, Snap needed to make the design more similar to what users are comfortable with. V2, which currently is available in 3 different styles, seems fashion-forward and futuristic, while still looking like a regular pair of sunglasses. It's a much more appealing aesthetic.
None of these changes are major, but good design is meant to be unobtrusive, and these issues all made the product feel like a pain to use.
One final feature that V1 sorely lacked: pictures. Why?! It just didn’t make sense that the glasses could share video, but not photos. This was a quick and obvious fix for the second version, and with the ability to update firmware over the cloud, even V1 pairs were blessed with this feature earlier this year.
Speaking of version 1...what happened?
Thousands of units sitting on shelves, low engagement, and a 40 million dollar loss. Why did the first iteration of Spectacles fail? Although partially due to design shortcomings, the failure was also due to poor marketing and rollout of the product. Initially, Snapchat built a huge amount of hype for Specs by placing mysterious vending machines in random locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and eventually New York. Word quickly got out, and everyone knew about these vending machines. Snapchat's target market loves exclusive releases (just look at Supreme, or Nike shoe drops), and the elusiveness of even finding a vending machine made the launch that much more interesting. People lined up for hours just to get a pair, and within the first few weeks, pairs were selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars. The hype was real.
After that, not much happened. A few months went by, and Snapchat didn't release any more pairs of Spectacles. Then suddenly, they just threw them online, available for anyone to purchase at spectacles.com. But no one really noticed, or even cared. The mass rollout had little promotion, and frankly, people just lost interest. Instead of rolling out a release soon after the promotional hype, Snapchat lost their momentum by waiting so long. Other factors played a role too, such as that not many influencers were using Spectacles. Without trusted influencers to share Spectacles videos, people couldn't see the types of content you could make with them.
In my opinion though, Snap should have never done a mass rollout in the first place. What made spectacles so interesting was this aura of exclusivity, fashion, and innovation. If everyone could get them, then they weren't so cool anymore. Snap could have done a better job promoting Spectacles as a brand-building tool. With only a few thousand pairs in circulation, they could have tested functionality with early adopters and influencers, and worked on a mass rollout for V2. For teens, so much of social media now centers around what's "cool", and Snap missed a really great opportunity to build that reputation. This exclusive "drop" strategy has come to dominate the modern fashion business, and with Spectacles being positioned as a fashion-forward product, this seemed like the obvious way to go.
What would I improve?
Even with a clean product design and near-frictionless user experience, I believe Spectacles still aren't going to blow up like Snapchat hopes they will, at least in their current form. The product positioning is still vague, and even now, no one seems to know what to do with them.
To combat this confusion, I'd love to see Snapchat develop an iteration of Spectacles specifically designed for sports and outdoor activities. This would target a clear and frequent use case for the product, improve user engagement, and generate more public interest through the interesting content that these users post. I think that outdoor activity is the content area where Spectacles excel most, so it makes sense to build the product around this use case. From what I've seen, most footage that friends have taken through Specs are of them playing sports or doing outdoor activities, like playing hockey, biking, or swimming.
Even Snapchat knows this. In their promotional video for Specs, almost all of the footage is of this kind of content. Water-resistance in V2 was a step in the right direction, but the product still feels stuck between all-purpose camera and outdoor activities, and this leaves users dissatisfied in either use case.
This is eerily similar to the positioning of the Apple Watch, another product that for a while lacked a great solution to any one use case. The first versions had many features, but didn't do anything exceptionally well, so people were unsure how the product was better than just using their iPhone. Many people wanted to use the watch for fitness and outdoor activities, so Apple has slowly pushed more in this direction with features and marketing, adding things like ECG measurement, partnering with Nike to make specialized sports watch bands, and promoting the tagline "answer a call from your surfboard". Apple realized that these types of users represent a large market and have a higher engagement rate, so they were smart to improve the product in this way.
This version of Spectacles needs to look and feel like it is designed for action and adventure, which the current version is not. The glasses still feel like they could fall off your face at any moment, so this version would have more adherent earpieces, as well as a more streamlined and lightweight design. Another option may be to partner with a active eyewear company like Oakley, which makes products for cycling, skiing, volleyball, and other sports. Snapchat and Oakley could jointly design a pair of glasses with all Spectacles functionality, but with Oakley's high quality lenses and performance materials. For example, Oakley has a technology that makes their earpieces become even more adherent to human skin when wet with sweat/water, a key feature that action sports users would benefit from. Considering that rumors of Snapchat partnering with designer eyewear companies like Warby Parker and Luxottica have already been floating in the media, a partnership with Oakley could be a real possibility as well. Note that partnerships like this would make Spectacles more like a camera platform, and less like a product, similar to how Amazon allows other speakers like Facebook Portal and Sonos to operate with Alexa functionality. Depending on the ownership Snapchat wants to have over the technology, they could opt to build out the version themselves, or partner with another brand.
Moreover, with a product designed for such a frequent use case, the issue of low user engagement would resolve itself. At first, many consumers bought Spectacles more so because they thought they were new and trendy, and not because they knew they would use them. But after their initial excitement died down and they realized they didn't have much to use them for, people just stopped. Engagement has been a key metric Snap has been looking at in terms of the success of the product, so an improvement in this area would be extremely useful. With this improvement, users know exactly how they will engage with their Spectacles, and if the design is well-executed, engagement will likely be high. Finally, sports and active content is likely to be more interesting for others to watch when posted on your story. Snapchat has had trouble conveying the types of cool content you can share with Specs, so this might serve as a marketing tool for converting viewers as well.
Along similar lines, another feature I'd want Spectacles to add is the ability to view content in the signature 360-degree format outside the app. Currently, when content is exported from the app to your camera roll, it is either circular in a white rectangle, or as of V2, in traditional 16:9 rectangular format. The circle-in-rectangle export (shown right), is really quite ugly to look at. Spectacles content wasn't designed to be viewed to be outside the app, but it still isn't realistic to expect users to keep all of their videos inside of it. People want to share content among many different apps, send it to their grandparents who don't have social media, download it to their camera roll for offline storage, etc. Adding 16:9 exports was smart, as it allows you to share content in a format that people are familiar with, but it still isn't ideal. Part of the field of view is automatically cut off, and image quality is noticeably worse. In any export format, the content sacrifices its innovative viewing experience for users. To me, the 360 format is one of the most innovative and unique features of Spectacles, and Snap has somewhat failed to it play up.
If Spectacles had a feature to view content in their signature format outside the app, users could share more and engage more with the product, and Spectacles videos would reach a larger audience. This may seem counterintuitive given that Snapchat wants users to interact inside their app, not out of it, but showing off Spectacles content on other platforms could be a smart marketing move. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have APIs that allow publishers to embed content inside of their posts. Snapchat was initially reluctant to offer an API due to privacy concerns, but earlier this year announced a similar API, but only for regular snaps, not spectacles content. A new API could allow users to click on Spectacles videos within web articles and view them just as they would within the app. It's unlikely to see Facebook or Twitter integrating this feature into their platforms, but Snap could also explore partnerships with companies like Apple or Google to create this feature directly within users' camera rolls. Imagine viewing a 360 video directly within iMessage, or Google's new Chat interface. Mobile video, especially short-form, is increasingly dominating people's consumption habits, and with an innovative way to consume this type of content, Snap should focus on promoting Spectacles 360 videos.
While Spectacles are one-of-a-kind, Snap certainly isn't alone in this space. Most recently, Tencent, the Chinese internet company, introduced a pretty blatant copycat version of Specs, targeted at the Asian market.
Mainly though, Spectacles are competing against Snapchat itself, just captured through another lens: phone cameras. The app makes it ridiculously easy to take a photo or video from your phone. The first screen that pops up when you open the app is the camera, and this is on purpose. Snapchat wants to make it as frictionless as possible to capture in-the-moment content, and that's really hard to compete with. Taking and sending content with your phone is already so frictionless, not to mention habitual for most users, which makes it hard to change consumer behavior. Spectacles want to fundamentally change the way you share content through Snapchat, and that change is not going to come quickly. Currently, it takes connecting to the glasses' special WiFi network and waiting a few seconds for each video to download. The process is simple enough, but nowhere near as frictionless as taking a video on your phone.
However, where Spectacles have an advantage over cell phones is their ability to capture certain content that cell phones cannot, in a way that is more natural and unobtrusive. If Snap can convey this value to users, it will be key to Spectacles' success as a mainstream product.
Another competitor to Spectacles, and probably the company who's product is most similar, is GoPro. However, GoPro is targeted specifically at action sports users, whereas Spectacles are marketed more as an all-purpose camera. Spectacles are also designed for short-form video, while GoPro captures hours worth of continuous footage. Though GoPro cameras are more durable and capture higher-quality video, Spectacles have a few key advantages that could win over the action sports market. For one, Spectacles come pre-integrated with a social platform where you can share your content. It's exponentially easier for users to click a few buttons to share their rock-climbing videos on their Snap Story, vs. plugging your GoPro into a computer, transferring files, sifting through and editing footage, and finally posting to Youtube or some other platform. In the same vein, the short-form nature of Spectacles makes it much more simple to share content. A common problem among GoPro users is having tons of footage sitting on a computer, left unedited and unshared. Sure, taking a video of your ski trip is cool, but no one wants to see your whole day out on the slopes. Spectacles are conveniently formatted in 10-second chunks, so users focus on capturing only the most exciting content. There's no sifting through long videos, looking for that one 7-second moment where you landed a cool trick.
My final thoughts
Snap, Inc. wants to be known as a Camera Company. This is how they define themselves, and it makes sense. They want to be more than just a photo/video sharing app, and frankly, they may need to be, given that Instagram is steadily stealing its lunch. Given this business strategy, Spectacles seem very much aligned with Snap's future, and I think it is a good introduction to building more immersive user experiences, both with hardware and software. I personally love the product because of its unique design and delightful user experience, but I still cannot envision Spectacles as a mainstream product and mass revenue source for the company. The competitive advantage just isn't there. I'd love to see it as a brand-building tool and as a way to share certain types of content, but Spectacles as a replacement for regular smartphones simply isn't realistic.
In any case, this is an exciting product, and I'm excited to see what Snap does with it...and by the way, they're already working on V3. Rumors say that it will come sometime in 2019, with features like VR, and (hopefully) a refined product-market fit.