As long as mobile phones remain our primary computing devices, the balance of power between social networks seems unlikely to shift too much in any direction. New devices have now been in development for several years, but so far nobody has been able to deliver something akin to an iPod: a relatively cheap, beautifully designed, and dramatically useful new gadget that points the way forward. The company that invents a product like that could dominate the next generation of computing the way Apple, Google, and Facebook have dominated the current one.
Snap may have gotten the closest. Spectacles, the company’s toy-like video-recording sunglasses, were the subject of intense buzz when they debuted in 2017. And while other companies work on their own version of augmented reality glasses, Snap continues to do its work in public: releasing a sequel to Spectacles last spring, and version 3 today.
I wrote about Spectacles 3 in The Verge. This longer-than-usual excerpt gets at why Snap believes they represent a milestone.
Now Spectacles 3 have arrived, available exclusively through Snap’s online Spectacles store. They come with a striking new design and a much higher price — $380, up from $150 to $200 for the previous edition. (Spectacles 2 remain on sale.) Snap says the changes reflect its intended audience for the new Spectacles: fans of high fashion and artists who relish new creative tools. It’s also a way of avoiding another big writedown: measuring demand carefully with a single online storefront, then selling each unit at a price that lets the company recoup a bigger share of its investment.
And Spectacles 3 are a milestone for the company in another way, too, CEO Evan Spiegel told me in a recent interview. Thanks to a second camera that lets the device perceive depth for the first time, Snap can now integrate its software into the real world using special filters that map to the world captured in a video.
“What’s really exciting about this version is that, because V3 has depth, we’re starting to actually understand the world around you,” Spiegel said. “So those augmented reality effects are not just a 2D layer. It actually integrates computing into the world around you. And that is where, to me, the real turning point is.”
Spiegel is playing a long game. He often says that AR glasses are unlikely to be a mainstream phenomenon for another 10 years — there are simply too many hardware limitations today. The available processors are basically just repurposed from mobile phones; displays are too power hungry; batteries drain too quickly.
But he can see a day where those problems are solved, and Spectacles becomes a primary way of interacting with the world. Spiegel says the glasses will be a pillar of the company over the next decade, along with Snapchat and Lens Studio, the company’s tool for building AR effects.
“I do think this is the first time that we’ve brought all the pieces of our business together, and really shown the power of creating these AR experiences in Lens Studio and deploying them through Spectacles,” Spiegel said. “And to me, that is the bridge to computing overlaid on the world.”
Later in the piece, I describe how that vision hasn’t translated all the way to reality. The computing is only overlaid on the world after the fact, when you download the snaps onto your phone and edit effects into them. It’s a cumbersome process, and combined with the new glasses’ $380 price tag, it’s hard for me to imagine Spectacles 3 becoming a bestseller.
The entire industry is grappling with the technological challenges of making a good AR product, as Nick Wingfield and Alex Heath report in this good piece today in The Information. Even Apple isn’t planning to release a pair of AR glasses until 2023, they reported on Monday.
But Spiegel himself acknowledges in that excerpt that mass-market AR glasses could be a decade away. He’s an underrated product thinker — and, thanks to a better-than-expected year for Snap, an increasingly confident CEO. When he talks about AR glasses, he makes them seem inevitable in a way that his peers struggle to do — while also being realistic about the current state of the art.
Here’s one snippet that didn’t make it into the final piece. I was complaining that I had abandoned my previous Spectacles because of the friction involved in transferring snaps from the glasses to the phone. Spiegel’s response contextualized the product for me — and the road ahead for Snap — in a whole new way:
Evan Spiegel: The way that I would think about it is in terms of the way that cameras overall have evolved over time. So if you look at the [usage of] early cameras, it was very much event-based, right? Event-based maybe even in the sense of like, once in your life, right? And then eventually that became like, during holidays. And then only in the last 10 years has it become, all day every day I use my camera. So I think that’s a very radical transition.
Spectacles, because they’re a new type of camera, they’re still event-based in terms of usage. You go on a really cool trip, you’re playing with your kids, whatever it is — and you want to represent that moment in a totally new way, from your perspective in 3D. So for now, I do think it’s going to continue to be an event-based product. But what’s really exciting is that over time, we’ve seen the capacity for these cameras to evolve from event-based products to products that are used all day long. So, I think we’re just on that journey with Spectacles. And we’re fortunate that we can continue to invest along that path to get there.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Microsoft announced it will apply the standard set by California’s new privacy law throughout the United States after the law goes into effect on January 1st. The move expands the impact of rules meant to protect consumers and their data.
Trending down: Facebook’s decision to allow politicians to lie in political ads is being widely condemned in Sri Lanka. The company has struggled to address anti-Muslim hate speech and incitement to violence in southeast Asia for many years.
Trending down: A bug in Facebook’s iOS app activates the iPhone camera when the app is opened. Facebook pushed a bug fix, but not before another news cycle about the company’s privacy problems. (Ben Lovejoy / 9to5Mac)
⭐ Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is questioning the US Army’s decision to try to recruit Gen Z’ers using TikTok, raising concerns about privacy and national security. The congressman wrote a letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy requesting he assess the national security risks associated with the platform and its Chinese parent company. Kadia Goba at BuzzFeed tells us more:
The Army turned to TikTok and other social media platforms in 2019 after recruiting numbers slumped the year before by more than 6,000 soldiers.
“While I recognize that the Army must adapt its recruiting techniques in order to attract young Americans to serve, I urge you to assess the potential national security risks posed by China-owned technology companies before choosing to utilize certain platforms,” Schumer wrote in the letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
In the letter, Schumer also asks if the Army has consulted with the Department of Homeland Security regarding potential security risks and if the Army has considered alternative recruiting methods.
Misinformation about the impeachment inquiry is spreading on social media. The posts, which mainly appear on Facebook, contain misleading information about the rules governing the inquiry, which aren’t widely understood and thus easy to lie about. (Daniel Funke / PolitiFact)
Twitter added some nuance its political ad ban, telling advertisers that ads that spread awareness about issues of national significance will still be allowed. This exception will likely only apply to issue ads, although Twitter hasn’t confirmed that for sure. Are you confused yet? (Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed)
A new coalition of progressive groups is ramping up its fight against Facebook. They’re calling themselves the Campaign to Regulate and Break Up Big Tech, and say they have been unfairly caught up in the company’s efforts to crack down on fake accounts and election manipulation. (Emily Birnbaum / The Hill)
Republican-linked PR firms are spending massive amounts of money on Google ads, seemingly to collect voter email addresses. The ads ask people to enter their emails in order vote on political polls. (Sam Baker / Engadget)
Several Facebook lobbyists have worked for top Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, while none have worked for members of the Republican leadership. The social network has spent nearly $12.3 million this year on federal lobbying. (Alex Kotch / Sludge)
Al Jazeera is asking Facebook to crack down on an Emirati-backed disinformation campaign to discredit its reporting. The news outlet says the campaign is a smear job painting them as a dangerous publisher that is inciting violence. (David Uberti / Vice)
⭐ A whistleblower who works on Project Nightingale — Google’s secret healthcare initiative that involves the personal medical data of up to 50 million Americans — raised privacy concerns about the project, reports Ed Pilkington at The Guardian:
The anonymous whistleblower has posted a video on the social media platform Daily Motion that contains a document dump of hundreds of images of confidential files relating to Project Nightingale. The secret scheme, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, involves the transfer to Google of healthcare data held by Ascension, the second-largest healthcare provider in the US. The data is being transferred with full personal details including name and medical history and can be accessed by Google staff. Unlike other similar efforts it has not been made anonymous though a process of removing personal information known as de-identification.
The whistleblower introduces the video with the words: “I must speak out about the things that are going on behind the scenes.”
The disclosed documents include highly confidential outlines of Project Nightingale, laying out the four stages or “pillars” of the secret project. By the time the transfer is completed next March, it will have passed the personal data of 50 million or more patients in 21 states to Google, with 10 million or so files already having moved across – with no warning having been given to patients or doctors.
Facebook will now you control what shows up in the app’s navigation bar, thanks to a new option called Shortcut Bar Settings. Among other things, the option means you’ll no longer see phony red notification dots for parts of the app you don’t otherwise check. Goodbye Marketplace! (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Facebook introduced Facebook Pay — a payments service that works across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. It’s rolling out in the US on Facebook and Messenger to start, and will support fundraisers, in-game purchases, event tickets, and person-to-person payments. The timing of the launch makes it look like a backup plan for the collapse of Libra, at least from the outside.
Instagram launched a new video editing tool in Brazil called Reels, which copies some of the best-known features of TikTok. It allows users to record 15-second videos, adjust their speed, set them to music, or borrow audio from others’ videos — similar to the “Duet” feature in TikTok. (James Vincent / The Verge)
Influencers are opening up on social media, getting real about issues like anxiety and depression, and teens are beginning to follow suit. But while the practice can benefit influencers by getting them more followers, it can make teens targets of harassment. This story also introduced me to the concept of “sadfishing” — pretending to have mental health problems in order to juice engagement on social posts. 2019! (Julie Jargon / The Wall Street Journal)
Influential Twitter users in India are starting to move to Mastodon, amid an outcry over Twitter’s moderation practices. The move came after Twitter suspending a leading Indian Supreme Court lawyer’s account twice. (BBC)
The only connection this item has to social media is a semi-viral tweet, but I can’t help but want to share it with you. It looks like a deepfake but it’s really just a wholly unnecessary edit to a classic film. Thank you and subscribe to Disney+ for more wholesale destruction of your childhood memories.