Snapchat Spectacles are so LA

Commentary: Unlike competitors like the ill-fated Google Glass, Snapchat's new shades look like you could find them at a souvenir stand on Venice Beach. That's their genius.

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Let's get this out of the way: Over the weekend, Snapchat unveiled a pair of video camera-equipped sunglasses called Spectacles, and the whole effort could crash and burn miserably.

But if Snapchat has earned anything, it's the benefit of the doubt.

The $129 shades, which are coming "soon," will let the 150 million (mostly young) people who use the social network every day shoot 10-second videos to upload to Snapchat. Lights on the front of the device will flash to indicate it's recording.

The new product is a big deal for Los Angeles-based Snapchat, which shortened its name to just Snap Inc. as part of the announcement. It's also a clear sign the company has broadened its vision to more than just its popular 5-year-old app, which now has nearly 15 million more users per day than Twitter.

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Snapchat Spectacles come in coral, teal and black.

Spectacles.com

Even though many people know Snapchat by name, fewer get it. Everything the startup does -- spurning a reported $3 billion takeover offer from Facebook in 2013, touting a confusing user interface -- is confounding to many tech industry observers.

And yet it's one of the most beloved tech companies in the world for young people. The company says it reaches 41 percent of all 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States on any given day.

So to count it out of anything is silly. The hope of CEO Evan Spiegel is that Spectacles can make tech-infused glasses -- the area where Google face-planted with its Glass head-mounted device -- finally cool. The potential market for wearables in general is huge -- $25 billion by 2019, according to the research firm CCS Insight. Snap has a better shot than anyone else has had to make smart glasses a thing.

Still, Spiegel is being cautious, only making a "limited" number of units to start. "We're going to take a slow approach to rolling them out," Spiegel told The Wall Street Journal. "It's about us figuring out if it fits into people's lives and seeing how they like it."

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Blogger Robert Scoble took this infamous picture wearing Google Glass in his shower in 2012.

Robert Scoble

A Snap spokesman declined on Monday to comment further on the Spectacles.

The shades themselves are flamboyant, loud and pointy, coming in three colors: black, teal and coral. They are unmistakably LA. Aesthetically, they remind me of the designs, shapes and colors of another LA company, the skateboard brand World Industries, started in Santa Monica. With their upturned corners, the Spectacles look a bit like the World Industries devil mascot. That SoCal vibe seems deliberate. The product's introduction video -- which has been viewed more than a million times since it was posted on Friday -- features happy young people skateboarding around the beach.

It's the antithesis of Google Glass, the smart eyeglasses Google introduced in 2012 and then pulled off the market after they were mostly ridiculed. Glass looked sleek, futuristic and therefore not of the here-and-now -- alienating in how much the device shunned the actual zeitgeist for the zeitgeist the company thought it could foolishly manufacture. They were self-important in a way that let them become a symbol of what everyone disliked about the tech industry.

Spectacles, by comparison, look like $8 shades you could pick up at a souvenir stand on the beach or Manhattan's St. Mark's Place. There is a very deliberate reason Spiegel referred to them as a "toy." They're so unassuming people might forget to get offended.

Of course, when Google Glass came out, the spectacles also got the benefit of the doubt. But marketing woes led to a swift downfall. At first, Google only made a $1,500 test version available to "explorers" -- mostly web developers and other early adopters, not exactly at the precipice of fashion. There were privacy issues because you couldn't tell if Glass was recording. And there was this picture of noted tech blogger Robert Scoble, naked and wearing them in the shower. The photo made Glass uncool overnight. Even Google co-founder Larry Page told Scoble he "didn't appreciate" the mug.

Because of Google Glass's big failure, Snapchat's bar for success is pretty low. The Spectacles could be a hip trend for a short time, and then slip into oblivion. And that might still be okay. The fashion road to hell is paved with novel shit that was cool one day, then, in the blink of an eye, not. Think slap bracelets and Kanye West shutter shades.

Snapchat's edge is in how it's pitched the product -- and therefore the rules of success. If it can prove its shades are cool for just a little while, Snapchat gets to keep innovating and trying out new things. Unlike Glass, Spectacles aren't being heralded as The Future of Computing. They're just a pair of shades with a camera that cost about what you'd pay for some nice sunglasses.