Computing

Using Snapchat's new glasses showed me where AR goes beyond phones

Phones might still be the main path for AR right now, but Snap's latest eyewear is a glimpse into the future of AR.

Snapchat's AR Spectacles are compact, but they're entirely developer-focused and have a very short battery life.
Scott Stein/CNET

I finally got to try Snap's AR glasses in my own backyard, testing a handful of its augmented-reality Lenses in bright outdoor light. The hour or so I spent with them was like a quick sprint through the possible future of how developers will play with AR beyond the current phone-powered experiences. I was able to try out a handful of experiences made by developers and Snapchat before the battery ran out.

The road to future AR glasses we'll wear all the time is marked by questions: What will you actually do with them? Will any pair of smart glasses ever be more useful than your phone? For companies like Snapchat parent Snap, the approach has been to continue developing phone AR ahead of physical glasses. That's still Snap's approach, even with AR glasses already in the hands of developers. Snap is working on more ways to scan the real world and overlay it with AR in its app-like Lenses on the Snapchat app, and moving some of those tools over to developers for its still-not-ready-for consumers AR glasses.

snapchat-ar-spectacles-selfie

My attempt at a selfie while wearing the AR Spectacles. They look like a real-life version of the "deal with it" sunglasses.

Scott Stein/CNET

It's probably as good a hint as any about the state of where augmented reality is headed into 2022. With Qualcomm and others all racing to figure out AR glasses, your phone is still the best place for them to connect.

As the concept of the metaverse keeps flying around everywhere, consider Snap's answer to it to be an ever-more-complex series of AR tools and effects layered into the company's phone-based social network. But Snap's approach also has an interesting wrinkle: creating unique face filters and AR effects to be used in other apps. Your avatar -- or your cat face -- could travel cross-app, in a sense. 

brielle-garcia-ar-menu-lens

Brielle Garcia's AR Menu lens, a way of browsing virtual menu items in AR. Snapchat's trying to keep adding ways for developers to overlay more virtual things into the real world.

Snapchat

Snapchat keeps adding more advanced AR features to its phone-based app. Developer-created Lenses can "mesh" the world (3D-scanning your environment, including objects and obstacles, like what Apple's lidar-equipped iPhones and iPads can do), but with regular phone cameras. Lenses will also be able to overlay real-world places with custom-designed augmented reality. The Landmarkers feature was previously only available at select real-world locations, but Snap is allowing anyone to scan and augment their own local effects. How the company will moderate creation of local AR effects remains to be seen. 

spectacles-ar-snap-lens

The AR Spectacles have waveguides that create the 3D effects. I had to wear contacts to use them.

Scott Stein/CNET

But what does this mean for smart glasses? Snap's AR Spectacles, announced earlier this year, are still developer-only. The company is slowly getting more of them to developers, but there's no timeframe at all for when this type of tech might become available to buy. There's a good reason for this: Snap's AR glasses have extremely short battery life, don't fit over regular glasses (I had to wear contacts) and have a very narrow field of view. But they work, for now, as a building block to let developers figure out how their phone AR apps will start working on glasses.

I can see why they'd be useful for developers to test. The best thing about Snap's glasses is they're bright enough to use outside, unlike some other AR headsets. And there's some stuff that surprised me. Doing things like stringing virtual lights between a tree and my porch or running from a zombie that chased me around the yard are hints of what's possible at some point when outdoor-wearable glasses become mainstream.

andre-elijah-peek-a-boo-lens

Andre Elijah's Peek-a-Boo lens for Snapchat.

Andre Elijah

The glasses are also designed to be accessories to phones, although they can work on their own when connected to Wi-Fi. Much like Meta's Ray-Ban glasses, they pair directly to a single app. Lenses that work in Snapchat can also be loaded onto the glasses. The goal is to make phone AR work so well that the jump to glasses becomes, in a sense, more a choice of fit and form.

Snap's AR focus for phones and headsets is becoming more real-world and collaborative. Connected Lenses, which allow multiple people to share the same experience, are coming to the developer-only glasses. But Snapchat still doesn't have a way for phones and these glasses to interact in the same experience. That's likely coming at some point, but with Snap's AR glasses still a purely developer-only piece of hardware, that may not matter right now. In fact, most of Snap's most exciting AR work is still compatible with phones.

This also underlines the state of AR at the end of 2021: If you want to try it, use a phone. The glasses part is still very much a work in progress for Snapchat and just about everyone else.