When I reviewed the first- and second-generation Snap Spectacles, augmented reality glasses were still in their infancy: Google Glass had failed and HoloLens was shifting more towards enterprise. Today's AR landscape looks (and sounds) more diverse thanks to wearables like Focals by North, Amazon's Echo Frames and Bose Frames. Apple is even rumored to be working on AR glasses. It's not so weird to wear a computer on your face anymore.
I'm running around Venice Beach wearing Spectacles 3, Snap's latest sunglasses that capture photos and videos with depth information. Once I import the footage into Snapchat , I'll overlay a 3D flying bird over the scene so it looks like I'm chasing it down the street. It sounds ridiculous, but it's also kinda fun -- a sentiment I feel sums up Spectacles 3 perfectly.
Like regular Snapchat videos you capture on your phone, you can add similar 3D elements over your Spectacles 3 clips, except they respond better to what's actually in the frame thanks to a depth map. These 3D elements and filters can also affect the look of your video, such as putting floating blobs in the scene or making it rain confetti.
Snap Spectacles 3 aren't able to display AR content over your field of vision like some of the other glasses I mentioned earlier. But it's important to talk about them in this context because Snap's headed to the same place, except instead of text messages in front of your face, it might be rainbows, hearts or other 3D objects overlaid on your world.
If you're a big Snapchatter, creator or artist who loves the idea of AR effects, Spectacles 3 may be worth it. But for pretty much everyone else, there's no reason to own a pair until they can do more.
Two cameras, but twice the price of the original
Let's get the biggest elephant in the room out of the way first: Spectacles 3 are expensive. At $380 (£330) they're not going to be within the reach of most Snapchatters. Snap knows this, which is why they're in limited release. (The company says it sold over 200,000 of the first-generation Spectacles and version 3 will only be a fraction of this number.) You can grab Spectacles 3 through the Spectacles website and select retailers in the US like Neiman Marcus.
Even though you might not use Snapchat, the app is crazy popular: In July 2019 Snap quoted 13 million new users jumping on board; by October, a further 7 million signed up for a total of 210 million active users, according to Snap. That's a lot of eyeballs that could potentially see Spectacles 3 content.
A retro-future design that passes for regular sunglasses
Like many regular sunglasses, you can adjust the nose pads and the arms to fit your face better. Spectacles 3 have a metal frame and they come in either a black or gold finish. The frames themselves are quite top-heavy and take some getting used to the weight, especially if you're not accustomed to glasses with adjustable nose pads.
The design might also be polarizing -- the aesthetic is what I'd call future art deco. As sunglasses, they work just fine. I appreciate the lenses are a neutral gray tint and they don't have the reflective finish from the first generation that looked a little comical. You can actually wear these as regular sunglasses without getting funny looks.
They come with a leather case that also charges them and a Google Cardboard-style viewer so you can review snaps in VR using your phone. You don't have to use this headset to watch your snaps back (most of the time I just reviewed on my phone because it was a lot easier).
Like previous Spectacles, you press either of the buttons on the temples to take 10-second snaps of video with sound, or press and hold for a photo. Those photos let you virtually move the camera from side to side to produce a kind of stereoscopic effect without needing to view in the headset. You can take longer stretches of video, up to 60 seconds at a time, by pressing the button in quick succession. There's an LED light that spins to let others know you're recording and a small light on the inside does the same for you. That inside light can also flash different colors if you get a snap from a friend.
Photos and videos sync from the glasses to Snapchat automatically; all you have to do is open the Memories tab and tap to import.
AR is supposed to be fun, not just for measuring stuff
There will be 10 lenses available for Spectacles 3 at launch, and they're all pretty cute: think floating foil balloons, confetti and flowers. Snap's opening up the lens creation tool for others to make their own, so expect more options over time. I spent a few hours taking clips around Venice Beach with Clay Weishaar, a mixed reality artist who is also one of Snap's official lens creators and you can see the results in the video on this page.
Once you've imported clips from the Spectacles to Snapchat, open a snap, tap the three dots, tap Edit Snap and swipe across to load the effects. You have to have a Wi-Fi or cell connection to apply the lenses, and depending on the strength of your signal, this can take a while to make a snap "3D enabled." (Although some Android phones are supported, it wasn't anywhere near as easy to get the 3D lenses to work on a Pixel 4 as it was on the iPhone .)
Some of the lenses are pretty impressive in how they respond to the environment. Try walking around a corner while recording, then add foil balloons in Snapchat. You'll see them partially in view as you approach the corner, then fully appear as you round it. Another lens turns floors into a moving carpet of flowers. You can even have floating blobs appear in front of and behind a person. I wish there was a Bitmoji lens you could add over Spectacles footage, or even the classic Snapchat dancing hot dog (a hint for third-party creators).
Unfortunately, the lenses don't have great continuity if you want to record a longer stretch of video. For example, if you record 30 seconds of video (three snaps), you have to apply the effects to each of those three clips individually. For some lenses like the flying bird, it effectively "resets" the bird's position as each clip starts. So when you export the videos as a longer 30-second block, there's no smooth transition between one 10-second chunk to the next.
Once you've applied effects in Snapchat, clips don't have to stay there. You can export with circular borders, as 16:9, 4:3 or square aspect ratios, or to YouTube's 180VR format.
Image quality is fine for viewing on a phone. Just don't expect high-fidelity masterpieces when viewing on a computer, for example. Snap calls the resolution HD: It's 1,280x1,280 when exported as square video, but only 1,056x592 as a 16:9 clip. And they're not good for night shots (as per Snap's recommendation and the fact that they're, y'know, sunglasses). Audio quality is OK, but you'll still hear wind noise if you're moving fast, or on a bike.
The battery life on Spectacles isn't great. Snap says you will get about 70 snaps from each charge, plus enough juice to sync to Snapchat. I found that I managed to get 75 video snaps out of the glasses (equivalent to 12 minutes, 30 seconds of video) and transfer them to my phone before I had to recharge. Not great if you were using these all day at an outdoor festival, for example.
The case doesn't charge the glasses that fast either -- it took about 2.5 hours to charge from completely empty to full.
Spectacles 3 are what Spectacles 2 should have been
Spectacles are a fascinating product. While the third generation is hard to recommend because of the price, hopefully we're not too far away from a version that can not only capture AR, but display AR effects in front of your field of vision. We just have to make sure we're ready to see our world through a Snapchat lens, with puppy ears and rainbows in tow.
First published Nov. 12, 2019.