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Say hi to Snapchat and Specs, your secret AR 'gateway drug'

Pokemon Go got the fanfare for making augmented reality mainstream, but Snapchat -- with Lenses and Spectacles -- was already AR's undercover evangelist.

James Martin/CNET

Who would have thought that augmented reality's best pitch would be puking rainbows and candy-colored camera glasses?

Augmented reality -- and its more advanced cousin mixed reality -- overlay digital information onto the visible world. Typically, this is where I'm supposed to reference Pokemon Go, last year's mobile gaming phenomenon that popularized AR through the digital monsters that popped up on your phone camera.

But before Jigglypuffs and Squirtles started showing up in your bathroom, many more people were already using a different app to play with augmented reality everyday, often without realizing it: Snapchat. With Lenses barfing rainbows from your open mouth, and more recently with the $130 sunglass-camera hybrid Spectacles, Snapchat parent Snap has served up the world's hottest training wheels for AR.

Just don't look to Snap itself to claim the title, at least for now. You won't find any mention of augmented or mixed reality in the materials leading up to Thursday's initial public offering, which priced higher than expected in what could be the biggest IPO in the US since Alibaba's in 2014. But experts say the popularity of Lenses and Spectacles breaks down two major barriers for AR -- familiarity and social acceptance.

"It is a gateway drug to more AR," said Jim Merrick, chipmaker Qualcomm's marketing director for internet of things products. "It's the wearability of [Spectacles], and it doesn't have the Google Glass creepiness factor."

That could position Snap to be an unexpected leader in a new technology that some, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, predict could be bigger than virtual reality. And that means Snap, down the road, could touch more facets of your life than simply your fascination with its trademark disappearing selfies.

Lenses > Pokemon Go

After introducing Smart Filters in late 2013 to overlay details like the time or temperature on a photo, the company in 2015 launched Lenses to morph your face with interactive animations. Hence, the sparkly rainbow vomit pouring everywhere.

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People snapping selfies with Lenses might not know it's one of the most popular mixed-reality technologies in use today.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET en Español

Selfies are a big part of Snapchat, so it makes sense that Lenses are one of its most popular features -- more popular than Pokemon Go ever has been.

The viral video game holds the reputation of being AR's breakout hit, but at its absolute peak, Pokemon Go had about 21 million people using it daily, according to app analytics provider Apptopia. By contrast, more than a third of Snapchat's 158 million daily active users play with Lenses every day, or more than 52 million people.

Though vomiting sparkly rainbows seem trivial, smart-glasses maker Osterhout Design Group said that consumer programs are key to familiarizing people with its own augmented-reality glasses. Though designed for technical, on-the-job tasks, ODG's glasses use mundane entertainment apps to acquaint people with the unfamiliar technology, according to Pete Jameson, ODG's chief operating officer.

"When we deliver glasses to new customers, we put consumer applications on the glasses so they can get used to the experience, so email, movies, internet," he said. "We see those applications as a training tool."

ODG unveiled its first consumer smart glasses, the R-8, at CES in January.

Then there's mixed reality, which takes AR a step further by making those digital overlays react to you and the things around you. If Snap dipped its toes into AR with filters, it jumped into mixed reality with its Lenses.

Technical specs

Spectacles, meanwhile, transformed Snap from an app company into a device maker too. In the process, the camera-equipped sunglasses shoved it further down the path toward AR.

To be clear, Specs aren't AR headsets. Unlike dedicated AR and MR devices like Microsoft's HoloLens or ODG's smart glasses, Specs are designed to capture images only. While HoloLens can beam virtual, 3D images into your field of vision, Specs simply have a small camera at the temple that takes 10-second videos at the touch of a button, after which you can view them in the Snapchat app.

People who work in AR note that Spectacles feel like a steppingstone toward AR headsets, whether or not Snap ends up heading in that direction.

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Snap's Spectacles aren't AR headsets, but they help break down some of the biggest barriers to AR.

James Martin/CNET

"It's getting people exposed to the concept of having a wearable on that's not some crazy 5-inch-thick piece of glass in front of your face," said Vince Cacace, the CEO of Vertebrae, a startup developing advertising formats for VR and AR. "I could see 6,000 girls wearing this to Coachella."

The devices help erode two hurdles that have crimped AR devices in the past -- awkward, unfamiliar design and "creepiness," as Qualcomm's Merrick put it. Those problems were exemplified by the backlash to Google Glass in 2014, when restaurants, bars and movie theaters banned the device. The product even gave rise to a dismissive slur for people wearing them: glassholes.

Spectacles haven't encountered the same controversy. If anything, the youthful gleam to Snapchat (the majority of people using the app are 18 to 25 years old) and the scarcity of the "bots" that dole out Specs only heightened their appeal. Available via those bots since September, they launched online only last week.

Snap's decision to add a small circle of lights to the frame indicating when the Spectacles camera is running have helped to smooth over privacy jitters of people who don't like the idea of being filmed unawares.

"[Google Glass] gave us some guardrails to be careful about," said Chris Croteau, the general manager of chipmaker Intel's headworn products business, who cited "social awkwardness" as the biggest hurdle to AR that his company has noticed so far. Snap's steppingstone approach to AR, he said, plays into how consumers are most likely to grow accustomed to the technology, much as they got comfortable with mobile phones, initially as devices for calls and messaging and eventually as full-blown computers.

Also, unlike most true AR headsets, Spectacles are actually available. Microsoft's much-ballyhooed device is still in development, while the $1,000 ODG R-8 will launch in the second half for developers only.

"Simply having a gadget, a technology device that I wear as an eyeglass, that's an important barrier to break," said Hugo Swart, Qualcomm's senior director of product management for AR and VR.

Is the future of AR really puking rainbows?

Snap declined to comment on its AR ambitions, but its acquisitions have presaged new product rollouts. Its 2014 purchase of Vergence Labs, which made Google Glass-like eyewear that records video, was the genesis of Spectacles. Its 2015 takeover of startup Looksery, maker of 3D facial tracking masks, became Lenses, and Snapchat followed it up by buying Obvious Engineering, the company behind 3D photo application Seene, in 2016.

The latest acquisition hints that Snap has more AR to come.

In late December, Snapchat reportedly bought an Israeli AR startup called Cimagine Media, which makes programs that help visualize what an item might look like in the user's environment, like a couch in your living room.

So will your sofa be vomiting glitter next? Snap isn't talking but, considering how well the company has promoted AR without even mentioning it, maybe the subtlety of puking rainbows is just right.

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