When Snap, Inc. announced earlier this year that it had created a pair of video-recording sunglasses called Spectacles, it was a little hard to get a handle on just what the end result would be. Snap was new to the hardware game, and more ambitious wearables like Google Glass had been expensive, niche failures. But yesterday a limited number of Spectacles went on sale, offered through a yellow pop-up vending machine near the company’s original headquarters in Venice, California — and we finally got a chance to see what the company had come up with.
After spending some time with them, I don’t think I’m ever going to give my Spectacles up.
That vending machine gambit sets up a core ideal — Spectacles are supposed to be whimsical and fun — and that principle carries through all the way to the design and execution of the product. Spectacles are packaged in a clear tube roughly the size of three tennis balls, which holds the recharging case, the glasses themselves, a USB cable for the case, and a glasses cleaning cloth — cut in the shape of the Snapchat ghost.
The Spectacles themselves come in three different colors: black, teal, and coral (in person, the coral option looked more like a plain orange, though I ended up with the classic black, myself). Design-wise, they’re plastic glasses that look like a Ray-Ban riff you’d expect Warby Parker to come up with. But pulling them out of the case for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by just how slim and light they are. They’re not as streamlined as the Wayfarers I personally wear day to day by any means, but the Spectacles keep the bulk of their electronics in the temples of the glasses, letting the rest of the frame and arms feel like, well, just regular sunglasses. Two yellow circles sit at the ends of the glasses: one is where the camera is housed, and the other hides a ring of LEDs that light up when the device is recording.
Spectacles work with both Android and iOS devices — I was only able to test them with an iPhone — but pairing is a best-case dream scenario. The user simply looks at the scannable Snapchat ghost icon in the app with the Spectacles, presses the single button on the top left, and the process handles itself magically from there.
Snapping video with the Spectacles is equally simple: the user presses the same button (it’s the only one on the device) to kick off a 10-second video recording. That can be extended twice with additional presses of the button, for up to 30 seconds in total (they’re saved as three discrete 10-second snaps, but once uploaded into a Snapchat Story they more or less play as a continuous clip). A small light inside the glasses blinks to notify the user when recording begins and ends. To let those around you know you’re shooting, a tiny ring of LEDs on the front left of the glasses swirls during recording. The whirl is a whimsical touch, replacing the usual red “recording” light people may be familiar with from video cameras with something more engaging and playful — and far less intimidating.
Getting Spectacle snaps onto your phone — and up onto Snapchat itself — is not quite as smooth. Snapchat’s never had the most intuitive interface, and it’s grown increasingly complex as the app has layered on new features. Videos taken with Spectacles sync via Bluetooth when the Snapchat app is open, and show up as grouped stories in a new “Specs” tab in the Memories section of the app. From there, videos can be tweaked, filters can be added, and clips can then be sent to friends, posted to your ongoing Story, or shared on different social platforms.
The Bluetooth syncing is rather slow, and while Spectacles do take advantage of Wi-Fi syncing for higher-definition versions of clips, that implementation involves the extremely clunky step of jumping to your iPhone’s settings app and changing your Wi-Fi network to a hotspot generated by the Spectacles themselves. Given how smooth and painless the capture process is, the app component stands out for its lack of speed and awkwardness — but like most things Snapchat, it’s also a matter of muscle memory, and will likely feel much more intuitive once users get used to the way it works.
But enough about the workflow details, I hear you saying; what’s it actually like to record and watch snaps recorded with Spectacles? Here’s the great news: both are incredibly fun, and will only become more so as people get used to how they should actually use Spectacles. Given that Spectacles are sunglasses — and relatively unobtrusive ones at that — there’s nothing distracting or odd about having them on in the first place. And capturing is so dead simple it lets you grab moments without even having the chance to overthink or plan. It promotes a kind of spontaneous, in-the-moment capture that the ritual of grabbing a phone and launching an app really can’t match.
Now, the actual camera in the Spectacles won’t match what you get with your iPhone or high-end Android phone, and the low-light level performance can be straight-up bad by modern standards. But measuring this device against those kind of benchmarks almost seems to miss the point (also: wearing sunglasses at night is creepy). Spectacles aren’t about creating carefully crafted images, or even about grabbing long-form video like you might do with a GoPro. It’s a vessel for sharing moments, and the 115-degree camera lens and eye-level perspective makes it a unique tool in that regard.
That’s to say nothing of watching the video snaps themselves. Snapchat is using a circular video format with Spectacles, and when the videos are saved or shared to other platforms it shows up as just that: a circle of video. But when played in Snapchat itself, the format lets users twist and move their phone around to explore the full range of captured video, almost like a micro augmented reality rig. A viewer can watch a video snap of a person in portrait orientation, for example, and then turn their phone landscape to reveal two other friends to either side that they wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. It’s another way in which Spectacles offer a sense of real-world immediacy, almost like you’re watching something out of Strange Days. Add in the fact that you can also incorporate traditional Snapchat elements like text and drawing — each of which becomes fixed in the virtual space — and it’s easy to see the new layers of creativity Snapchat users could start utilizing when they finally get their hands on Spectacles.
Given that this is Snap, Inc.’s first foray into real hardware, it’s also worth noting just how fully realized Spectacles seem as a device. The glasses smoothly snap into place in the charging case, for example — it can hold enough power to recharge a pair of Spectacles four times, which will be useful as I found syncing HD clips to be a huge battery drain — and for recharging the case itself, a matching yellow-and-black magnetic charging cable smoothly locks into place on the rear of the case. These are small details, but they’re also thoughtful refinements that make Spectacles feel thought out from an experiential perspective, something that can be hard even for long-standing hardware companies to pull off, much less newcomers.
Snapchat Spectacles will ultimately live or die by the way users play with them, and given that it is easy to understand why Snapchat is being so unorthodox in its rollout. The company has only said a limited number of the devices will be produced, and the oddball distribution strategy seems designed to keep them as a somewhat niche project. But even after a few hours with Spectacles, it’s easy to see their potential. Should people fall in love with the idea of capturing life moments on the fly, glasses with two yellow circles on either side — the signature look of Spectacles — could become a familiar sight, and one that would then in turn drive further awareness of Snapchat itself.
But for now, it’s time to play, experiment, and create new things. Adopting new technologies is easy when they’re actually fun to play with, and at $129.95 this technology should be fairly accessible for those who can find the vending machine robot. In an area where trying too much has been the death knell for too many products, Snapchat is keeping things very simple and streamlined with Spectacles. The polish is in the details, but it’s all designed to create a fun, frictionless zone for people to do one very important thing: create and share.
This story was originally published November 11, 2016 and has been updated on November 12, 2016 to add video.
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