Following Snapchat’s unveiling of its Spectacles, here’s what Dino Burbidge, our Director of Tech and Innovation thinks…
“Putting lipstick on a pig” – the phrase used when a thing that didn’t quite work before is glossed up and re-presented as a great thing. Normally, a lipsticked pig moment is obvious and elicits nothing more than a groan. But when Snapchat’s Spectacles were announced recently, something strange happened. The press didn’t seem to notice the hidden truth, just a cute pig. Only this cute pig’s impact could be huge… and potentially dangerous.
Why? Well, the boffins at Google had the same idea a couple of years ago – Google Glass. It had a small screen and a few extra gizmos but the feature that caused its eventual, ugly, public demise was the camera. Members of the public didn’t seem to appreciate the potential that their private gossip, their business meetings or their saggy bums in the gym could be covertly recorded without permission. A fair criticism. It’s where tech “yes we can” met bluntly with moral “no you shouldn’t”. Google Glass pioneers were, quite rightly in my view, called Glassholes.
Google canned the project, mumbling something about it just being a test and that people took it too seriously. That was disingenuous at best. It was a test that was commercially available, advertised and came in different colours. It was a product mistake, not a test.
In the following two years, wearables have rocketed in popularity. We’re feeling more and more comfortable strapping technology to our bodies. Lifecasting is a thing and we share more and more (often vacuous) video than ever before. Google never really explained what was supposed to happen to the videos you captured with Google Glass, but now it’s obvious… Snapchat.
But the Google Glass creepy zone has acted as a warning for lifecasting camera development ever since. It planted the concept that public morals and rights outweighed personal gain and convenience. Generation We over Generation Me. And let’s not beat around the bush, Google et al aren’t doing this for a giggle. The data they gain and the ongoing brand engagement all have a direct path to revenue, mostly advertising.
So here we are, Snapchat Spectacles. Yay, fun little Snapchat. Or to be more accurate Snap Inc. Their recent name change flags an important shift. They are not a gimmicky chat app company anymore. As their CEO Evan Spiegel says, “Snap Inc. is a camera company. We believe that reinventing the camera represents our greatest opportunity to improve the way people live and communicate. Our products empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together.” We’re a camera company? Penny. Drops. Diversifying into physical product is a smart move, decoupling at least a part of their business empire away from the restrictive shackles and whims of the mobile phone manufacturers.
Why will Snapchat Spectacles work when Google Glasses didn’t? Well, they are pitching them in the same mental space as action cameras. More a toy than a computer on your face. There’s a light that comes on when recording and they look really obvious rather than trying to hide. But all that is the lipstick on the pig. It’s arguably the thin end of the wedge that makes it socially acceptable to wear devices in public with the sole purpose of recording interesting things. Things that make your Snaps more popular. Potentially private, potentially cool, potentially important videos.
So what? Advertisers tread this line very carefully all the time. The right to privacy pitched against the desires of a brand. Get it right, your customers engage and love you all the more. Get it wrong and you’re in the same creepy bucket with the Glassholes. The long climb back out of that bucket isn’t fun. With public captured video, it’s about the right for others to not be implicated in your activity. It can have real consequences. Putin’s troops were proved to have been on the ground in the Ukraine from the digital breadcrumb trails left by their troops’ social posts and photos. A recent test in the UK equipping police forces with body cameras noted a massive 93% reduction in complaints against them. Will wearing Snapchat Spectacles reduce teen violence? Increase bullying? Or simply allow your hands to appear in your Snaps like you couldn’t before.
The main point is, are we ready? The reporting around Spectacles seems wholeheartedly positive (bordering on naivety), some even stating the failure of Google was purely that they looked too dorky. But has time fogged the clear feeling we had when Google tried this? To complete the analogy, when the lipstick is wiped off the pig, can we live with face staring back at us? Our responsibility is to be responsible. One thing’s for sure, if there’s a way to use Spectacles for good, I’m that guy, first in the queue, wearing the funny looking glasses.