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Sorry, Snapchat: The glassholes are coming

Commentary: Snapchat is trying to make glasses that record video seem normal with its new Spectacles -- but that plan may backfire.

James Martin/CNET

You can't buy Snapchat's Spectacles for $130. Even if that's what it says on each and every receipt.

The real price is anywhere between $750 and $2,000 -- because that's how much you'll pay scalpers on eBay or Craigslist. Or the price is hours and hours of your time: time to wait, and watch, and drive, and hours to stand in line wherever the disappearing photo company's disappearing vending machine will turn up next.

Who buys a $750-$2,000 pair of video-recording glasses? Who spends all that time waiting? I'll hazard a guess: maybe they're the same people who paid $1,500 for a pair of video-recording glasses four years ago, waited months to actually get them, then triggered a huge backlash.

Remember Glassholes?

Glassholes

Today the tech industry is beginning to realize just how little it understands the world.

But in 2012, when Google announced its Glass headset, the company seemed blissfully ignorant that it was catering exclusively to entitled rich people.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-1-56-06-pm.png

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

Robert Scoble

It wasn't just the exorbitant $1,500 price: to get Glass, you had to become part of an exclusive club of "Glass Explorers," and wait months to be initiated into the not-so-secret society. (Members even received a chunk of glass engraved with a number to mark their place in line.)

Those Explorers were encouraged to figure out all the things they could do with Glass -- but many of those things weren't exactly warmly accepted by society. People realized it was a little bit creepy to have some rich person doing who-knows-what with their head-mounted cyborg video recording device.

Soon, they were known as Glassholes. You can thank Twitter user Startup L. Jackson for that:

Even people who never saw Google Glass in person had plenty of opportunity to reject Glassholes on the internet. Sites like "White Guys Wearing Google Glass" sprang up to point fun.

And then there was tech blogger Robert Scoble's infamous shower photo -- the iconic image that may have sealed Google Glass' fate for good.

Speaking of which: Robert's at it again:

"Are Glassholes back?" I asked on Twitter. His response: "Yup! :-)"

Are Spectacles that different?

When Snapchat introduced its Spectacles, journalists champed at the bit to explain all the reasons they wouldn't suffer the same fate as Google Glass. (Journalists are sometimes optimistic that way.) For instance:

  • Snapchat is cool (unlike Google)
  • Spectacles look easy and fun to use
  • They look like fashion sunglasses
  • Lights let you know when they're recording
  • The only thing they do is record video
  • Camera-equipped phones are already everywhere you look in 2016
  • Snapchat gave Spectacles to a famous fashion photographer instead of geeky tech bloggers, greatly reducing the chance of an embarrassing shower photo.

But the biggest reason, the one I keep seeing in print, is that Snapchat theoretically lets anyone get in line and walk away with a pair of Spectacles for just $130. Theoretically, they're democratized and accessible to Snapchat's biggest audience: teens.

So, in theory, you don't have to be a Glasshole to wear them, but it helps if you've got some cash on you. Spectacles are selling on eBay for upwards of $750. And even if a kid was in exactly the right place at the right time to get a pair out of the vending machine for its $130 retail price, they'd have to be convinced that keeping a pair of Spectacles is a better choice than selling them for a tidy $600+ profit.

Google used this image to explain how Google Glass owners would be able to take pictures hands-free.

Google

Snapchat Spectacles and Google Glass have similar use cases.

Snap, Inc.

Google Glass wasn't a great product. It was difficult to set up, had terrible battery life, didn't have a clear purpose and made the user look a bit too much like Locutus of Borg -- but it wasn't inherently creepy. While it didn't only record video like Spectacles, it also didn't do any of the more outlandish things people feared.

Among other things, Google marketed it as a way to take hands-free photos and video while, say, swinging your kids in the air. It was pretty much the best thing you could actually do with Glass, and that's the part Spectacles is building on.

But like Glass, Spectacles will start in the hands of wealthy early adopters and tech bloggers scrambling to try the next big thing -- not the millennials Snapchat hoped.

To be sure there are a few exceptions to this prediction:

And the company for sure is aware of the demand it's created as evidenced by retweets from Spectacles' official Twitter account:

Still, perhaps Snapchat is hoping that this time, early adopters will be more tactful, the public more forgiving. After all, unlike with Glass, it's pretty clear what Spectacles are for. Or maybe Snapchat's just hoping to stretch out the hardware craze long enough to IPO on Wall Street. After all, you can't be a diversified company with just a single smartphone app.

To pursue this, Snapchat's turned to the same brilliant technique that helped Nintendo strike gold with the Nintendo Wii and may do so again soon with the mini-NES. Which is:

Make something cheap that people want to try, but only let a few in. Boom: You've got a line out the door, and everyone's talking about how popular your product is. Nobody questions whether it might all be a fad.

Not the people in line, because they need to justify all the time they spent, and not the people who haven't tried it yet. Certainly not the scalpers on eBay and Craigslist, who don't want to attract too much attention.

Thing is, those who can afford scalpers may not be the people you want as the face of your brand.