Snapchat's next mission in AR: Going from playground to practical

Snap's head of AR partnerships tells us where transformative effects are heading next.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read

Snapchat's Lenses feel like experiments, because they often are.


Snapchat's and Instagram's lenses and filters have been building out weird transformative camera tools for years, and they're starting to get more ambitious. And weird. And maybe fun? But will they become more essential?

There are still no magic AR smartglasses people are wearing in 2020, at least not in this universe. But if you want an idea of where the weird social world of AR is going next, you'd better take a look at phones. You may not think of Snapchat's face-changing filters as AR, but they very much are -- just on a smaller scale, yet with a large audience. 

Snapchat's road to an eventual pair of AR glasses looks like it runs through lens creators. Snap on Tuesday announced a $3.5 million AR creation fund for 2021 at Snapchat's AR-centric Lens Fest developer summit, and says creator-made lenses have been viewed more than a trillion times. Snapchat's AR focus has largely been on extremely short-attention-span filters and creator-made experiments. It could be growing into more. Snapchat's latest tools enable AR scavenger hunts, transforming real-world landmarks and using machine learning to create app-like lenses that analyze the world.

Do Lens creators see their transformative weird lenses as stepping-stones to an AR future with glasses? And where does Snapchat see things going next? 


Self-portrait, Spaghetti Lens.

Scott Stein/CNET

A drop-in, drop-out world of viral AR

Snap's current world of lenses on its Snapchat app is popular, but it's also a sea of random and wild ideas. Creators can get success by just dreaming up something that suddenly goes big. Pam Taylor, maker of a Spaghetti Lens that went viral earlier this year, is 16 years old (she also has lenses that turn the world into Lucky Charms, Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles). Taylor says she created her turn-the-world-into-spaghetti lens after seeing a style transfer tool demoed at a Snapchat Partner Summit that made everything look like Van Gogh's Starry Sky.


Woolery's Light Saber Lens (self-portrait)

Scott Stein/CNET

Friends shared it, and it took off from there. "Lenses are exponential, so you should keep all of them out," Taylor says. She finds that friends with huge platforms using her Lenses in their Snapchat stories have helped her go viral. "It's fun to see how it's perceived, and how people use it."

Hart Woolery's lightsaber and sock puppet lenses are, to him, chances to play around and see how things work, like quick experiments versus fleshed-out apps. "It's a great tool for prototyping an idea I have and see if it works, if it gets any kind of reaction. ... It just takes me a week or two of time. I can also test it quicker." Woolery sees a shift from AR entertainment to AR tools as devices become easier to wear and use someday, but for now it's about just catching someone's attention. "The challenge is just building something that catches on first. The rest of it kind of takes care of itself."

But the short attention span for Snap Lenses may also mean spreading out your bets a little. "Investing a lot of time in a single experience is not going to have the same rewards as investing a little time in a lot of experiences," says James Hurlbut, a VR/AR developer who made a machine learning Snapchat lens that rates people's surfboards. Hurlbut still sees AR as a "drop in, drop out" experience, even in a future world of AR glasses. "The social landscape right now is dropping into Snapchat, and then you're going to Twitter and Twitch. We're becoming more and more drop in, drop out using these different media."

A few Snapchat Lenses are becoming more app-like, like a language-translation of lenses from developer Atit Kharel. ("Since we've been working from home, people are looking to learn more skills. I can see AR making learning more interactive and accessible," Kharel says.) But, for the most part, they're still about being weird and fun.


Lens creator Atit Kharel explores AR, but also language translation in his Lenses.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Building a future on phones

2020 has felt like a year in when many companies tried to figure out how to do the best with what they already have. Snapchat's plans for 2021 might be more ambitious, according to Sophia Dominguez, Snapchat's new head of camera platform partnerships, and a former Snap Lens developer. "I think 2021 is going to be one of those years in which we evolve augmented reality out of this pure communication or social media use case, into things that can actually make our lives better in a much broader way." Dominguez envisions AR and VR becoming mainstream over the next 10 years, much like other longer-range visions. But the steps in-between sound like they'll take work to get there.

With so many lenses popping up to browse through, it can start seeming like an endless pile of ideas looking to go viral. Finding lenses isn't always easy, and I don't know how to keep a record of my favorite experiences. Snapchat's lenses are still largely personal experiences, and separate ones, but they may start dovetailing more, or interacting.


Snapchat's new Face Morph AR feature for Lenses. Lenses are still playgrounds for facial transformations, but they're trying to turn into tools, too.


"In the future, the camera is just a future version of the internet, in some sort of fashion. You go to different pages, have different experiences, and some of them are linked together. That's kind of the future we're creating. In Lenses, you can assign specific tags," says Dominguez.

It seems like it would make sense to build AR effects into more Zoom-like chat platforms, much like Facebook does with Portal or Apple does in FaceTime with Animoji. "That's a super interesting area," Dominguez agrees. But AR's biggest opportunity also involves shopping and branding. Much like many other AR companies, Snap's been exploring more of these ideas during a year in which COVID-19 has kept people inside. 

"Ultimately, the people who win [AR] are also the ones who have the tool and the network," Dominguez says. "Whatever it is that you're wearing or doing, you need content, and the drivers and the community to build that content."

And as for glasses? Of course, advanced 3D AR glasses aren't here yet. But the plan is for classic, useful, and viral lenses, like the Spaghetti Lens, to stick around and be the experience those future glasses will provide.

"What is the future of nostalgia?" Dominguez wonders. "When you use augmented reality, it's so much driven by how something made you feel." 

"It should be very interesting," she says, "when you're reviewing this on glasses -- like, 'I remember when I was confined to this rectangle, and we could only experience it in such a limited way.'"