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Snapped Up

New hardware rarely excites anymore. What’s missing is a little surprise, a little swagger, some … Snap. That’s why Spectacles were the most important and intriguing tech release of 2016.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

There are things that people will always line up for: new Harry Potter books, midnight Star Wars releases, famous people signing things, overhyped bars. It’s become more challenging, though, for gadgets to draw a crowd. Sure, a new iPhone can still attract a couple of overnight campers, but the fervor that once coursed like a current through these groups has been dulled. The consumer electronics industry is not entirely at fault here; it’s happening at the same time as we are becoming increasingly complacent with technology.

Smartphones used to be magic; wearables were sci-fi come to life. Now, these things are productivity-oriented, a part of how we accomplish normal, boring tasks every day. This year, we got a new iPhone — it’s very good, and very much what the next iPhone should be like. There were a handful of smartwatch and fitness tracker releases that were perfectly fine. Google Home is impressive, but not hysteria-inducing.

And then, there was something else. It wasn’t exactly high-tech, and it didn’t innovate in its space. Regardless, Snapchat — er, sorry, Snap’s — Spectacles were the gadget release that finally managed to reignite our curiosity.

The gadget itself is incredibly simple. Spectacles are sunglasses with two circular cameras facing outward, on the front of the glasses. The camera connects to your Snapchat account and allows you to take first-person snippets that you can then upload to your account. The results are spherical videos showing the world exactly what you see. They look good, they work, and they’re fun.

Do you know what’s not fun? A keynote with expensive and hard-to-get invites, an event that is really just for developers, CEOs, and tech press — a keynote that ends with an expected announcement about when you can buy a thing. Do you know what is fun? A random, bright-yellow, futuristic vending machine that’s somewhere it shouldn’t be — the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, the Santa Monica Pier. Snap provided little to no explanation about these vending machines, plopping them down wherever people might be wandering. (Notably, they haven’t made an appearance in San Francisco, which feels purposeful — Spectacles are not for techies, they are for normals.) Snap broke the cycle and refused to play the product-launch game, and in the process, created hype around a novelty piece of hardware.

Snap’s marketing is often brilliant. The allure of the original Snapchat app was its disappearing, elusive nature — just like those damn yellow machines.

“Ephemerality made them famous. You think about the vending machines — it matches that strategy,” says Brian Blau, a research vice president at Gartner. “Those Snaps that disappear are like those vending machines, they come and go, and you don’t really know where they are. So it has some of the same appeal.” As always, playing hard to get works.

Spectacles are similar to another product, one that did not enjoy as storied a launch. When Google Glass premiered in 2012, it was initially met with wonder and fascination — but also derision. Google treated the release of its eyewear tech like a world changer. There were splashy promos and events, and a keynote. Infamous tech blogger Robert Scoble did this. Developer units were expensive and hard to come by. At first, an elite class of people got to buy and wear Google Glass; everyone else was left out. Glass was special and different, and Google told you exactly how to acquire and use it. But that strange product — one that isn’t all that different from Spectacles, though admittedly less elegant in its design — was a fun killer. It didn’t work. Glass is still “out there” in the sense that it exists and some people use it, but it never had a chance at scoring in the consumer market.

“Google went to tech people,” says LaunchSquad VP Bobby Pierce. “I feel like somewhere [at Snap HQ], there’s a slide deck that’s like, ‘We need an entire strategy for Robert Scoble to not get his hands on these.’” (Too late, but it was worth a try.)

“This is like an anti-tech product, and I think that’s smart for them,” says Pierce. “For the most part, tech isn’t cool. It becomes cool after a period of time, but at the outset … there’s not a lot that’s cool about being an early adopter.” Snap upended expectations and made it cool with a fuck-your-keynote-launch swagger and unannounced Minion-yellow vending machines. “If I had a client with that kind of budget,” says Pierce. “I would totally rip this off.”

I asked Pierce whether Snap’s casual bravado will influence how tech companies treat hardware launches. “God, I hope so! This feels like what Apple should be doing. The beauty of Apple for so many years is they made all these design choices that made it so you could take a thing out of the box and plug it in and it was super obvious what you’re supposed to do — and meanwhile, you had all these companies like Dell and Compaq and Gateway with these long manuals. But [Spectacles] feels really Apple-like — and now, Apple has these four-hour keynotes and more complicated products, and I think people are over it.”

Pierce is fascinated by Spectacles, but admits he hasn’t been able to try them yet — remember, they’re hard to come by. Blau has his own pair of Spectacles, but he didn’t wait in line for them. His 19-year-old nephew Jacob Roscoe snagged him a pair. In fact, Roscoe took home multiple pairs of the augmented reality goggles. “I woke up earlier than I was supposed to that day and I was scrolling through Twitter, and TechCrunch posted that there was a vending machine in New York,” he says. “I kind of second-guessed it and thought I might not go, it doesn’t really matter to me, it’s not something I would wait in line for …”

But wait in line he did, for what he guesses was nearly six hours. Roscoe and his girlfriend waited as Snap employees (or contracted workers of some sort) assisted with multiple purchases and as the vending machine was restocked. Each person was allowed to buy a maximum of two pairs — they came away with four pairs. She immediately sold her second pair to someone in line for $400, and the other on eBay for about $340. Roscoe kept one pair, and gave the other to his uncle. “They’re really easy to use,” he says of Spectacles. “The only downfall is they don’t immediately post to your Snapchat, you have to go through a process, which isn’t great.”

In the end, Roscoe says acquiring the Spectacles was more about the experience. “I’ll be honest,” he admits. “I haven’t touched them since Thanksgiving.”

It took me a long time to actually get my hands on a pair. First, I made three half-hearted attempts to acquire Spectacles. I considered driving out to Santa Monica from our Hollywood office to stand in line when the vending machine first appeared there, only to get sidelined by … you know, my job. Another day, I asked a friend who works in the area to wait in line for me — which he did, for a few hours, until the machine ran out. I tried to send a TaskRabbit once; no one would pick up the job. I turned to Lumoid to rent some. They were out. (They’re still out.)

All this led to me standing on a street corner, exchanging texts with a stranger. He was in possession of a friend’s Spectacles, and graciously going to lend them to me for an afternoon. This wasn’t like strolling into Verizon and buying an iPhone, or getting on a wait-list to purchase Google Wi-Fi. It felt like an illicit handoff, like buying a fistful of shrooms from a friend of a friend of a friend. “Don’t steal them!” he cheerily called out as I hurried back to my illegally parked car.

So what is all the fuss about? A quick review: Snapchat Spectacles come in a sleek, thick, triangular yellow case. Inside sit the yellow shades — which resemble a normal pair, save for the bright yellow circle around the cameras — and a charging cord. To sync them with an account, open Snapchat to the ghost-scanning page and stare at the ghost until the two devices connect. Hitting the button on the left side of the pair will record 10-second snippets as you see fit.

As Roscoe noted, nothing is auto-uploaded: You have to go into the app and edit and choose what to send to your story. (Blessedly — I have no desire to auto-stream every moment; no one should.)

So, how are the Spectacles? They’re … fine. The novelty wears off quickly, but spherical videos of my office — which is the only location where I had a chance to try them out — will never be as fun as capturing almost anything else in daily life. Would I pay hundreds of dollars for them? No. Would I use them again? Sure! Am I ambivalent about Spectacles? Yes. Does it matter? Not one bit.

Technology rarely amazes us anymore. It takes invention and attitude to surprise and delight consumers now. We’ve grown wise to the charade of celebrities in the wild wearing Apple Watches. Instagram advertising is nefarious and managed. There’s no genuine feeling in the race to acquire new consumer technology, and Silicon Valley elites haven’t yet figured out how to curb their prescriptive releases. Still, one company solved the problem in 2016.

“Authenticity is the buzzword in the industry, but few companies seem to know what that means,” says Pierce. “But I think Snap does.”