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Why Snap should abandon Spectacles but keep augmented reality

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

The bespectacled Samuel Scott says glasses have never been cool (and don’t get him started on VR headsets). In his new Promotion Fix column, he recommends Snap forgets the goggles and gives AR all of its focus.

Pygmalion-inspired 90s teen films such as She’s All That told a generation that glasses are not cool and that simply taking them off would transform someone from a shy geek into a ‘major hottie’. Snapchat should remember that.

Over the past five years, two emerging trends have been wearable glasses technology and augmented reality. During Snap’s Partner Summit last week, the company unveiled a combination of both.

But noting recent marketing results, Snapchat should leave the glasses and take the augmented reality.

The rise and fall of Google Glass

In 2012, Google released the ill-fated Google Glass to much media attention and other publicity. The device was essentially a hands-free smartphone with voice-activated applications including a web browser, calendar and camera.

Google never released specific sales figures, but CIO’s then managing editor Al Sacco estimated at the time that 300,000 units at most were sold by 2014. Google stopped selling the device in 2015. Despite the product’s privacy and safety concerns, I think the real reason for the failure was the ‘geek factor’.

Of course, Google Glass was very functional. But so are pocket protectors and graphing calculators and no one cool would ever walk around with them. Apple’s products are cool, but Google’s devices are not. (Hence the importance of brand even in a so-called ‘product-led’ tech world.)

Here are some images of people wearing Google Glass.

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but middle-aged marketers, tech gurus and software developers are not cool. (In all fairness, I include myself in the first group.)

For proof, watch Elon Musk’s awkward opening monologue on Saturday Night Live in the US a few weeks ago. It is little wonder that the value of Dogecoin, Musk’s favorite cryptocurrency, plummeted as much as 30% during the program.

If Google had simply wanted to sell an expensive product to a niche market, then the glasses might have succeeded (see below). But Google likely wanted mass appeal – perhaps to capture much more data for adtech purposes – and then shut sales down when it failed to materialize.

Snapchat’s failed Spectacles

The year after Google stopped selling Glass, Snapchat released Spectacles and seemingly had a much better chance of appealing to a mass audience. (The accessory could send pictures and videos to the owner’s account on the social platform.)

Here are some images of Snap’s first-edition Spectacles.

First, sunglasses are always cooler than regular ones. Second, the curviness resembles the sleekness of Apple products and does not have the sharp-edged bulk of Google Glass. Third, the top-heaviness is a style that Elton John would probably endorse. Finally, the advertised users were young and attractive and not predominantly white, middle-aged men.

Still, only 0.08% of Snapchat’s users bought Spectacles and almost half of those who did stopped using them after a month. Versions 2 and 3 fared little better. Sure, there were issues with distribution and promotion. But I have another idea why.

People do not want to wear stupid shit on their faces – especially when the primary dating method now is to look at a person’s headshot on a mobile app and then swipe left or right within a second. Some dating apps will even detect glasses in a person’s pictures and automatically suggest that he or she not wear them in the images.

“I think people don’t want to wear VR or AR. That takes the virginity rate up to 50% when all young men start wearing headsets,” said New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway last month on the Pivot podcast, which he co-hosts with tech journalist Kara Swisher.

“[These types of] wearables are one of the biggest technology head fakes over the last 10 years.”

Moreover, if I encountered someone wearing Google Glass or Snapchat Spectacles, I would constantly worry whether he or she was photographing or recording me. (Not that I am in the habit of doing weird things, outside of secretly listening to Take That when I was living in London at 20 at the turn of the century.)

Apple’s wearable technology is successful in part because it is only watches on wrists or headphones in ears. The devices are not on everyone’s faces. Smart glasses are products that only software engineers and venture capitalists – and not anyone who lives in the real world – would try to sell.

Which brings us to virtual reality headsets.

Stop trying to make virtual reality happen

Whenever I am at a tech conference to give a keynote marketing speech, I usually visit the expo hall to see what people are hawking. Without a doubt, there is always one booth where a few attendees are trying out virtual reality headsets. Here were two people at a marketing conference in Brighton, England, back in 2015.

I never see people wearing them anywhere else.

Since the introduction of VR headsets in 2016, sales have been extremely disappointing. For some historical analysis, see this prior commentary from Econsultancy’s Nikki Gilliland and The Outline’s Joshua Topolsky.

Today, virtual reality has largely been a temporary way to escape coronavirus lockdowns and play video games. Further, a Mordor Intelligence report highlights the technology’s use in select areas such as medicine.

But until we have Star Trek-inspired holodecks that remove the need to wear silly things on our heads, virtual reality will never be commonly used outside of a few niches. Strategist JP Castlin has a good VR line: “It's not the future of shopping. It comes and goes every 30 years. It's basically tuberculosis.” VR was a fad in the 1960s and 1990s as well.

The 2018 movie Ready Player One – directed by Steven Spielberg – was intended as a homage to 1980s pop culture, but the film actually came across an extended product placement for VR devices. In both respects, it failed.

At next month’s VR/AR Global Summit, Lily Snyder, the head writer at Futures Intelligence Group, will present on “marketing to the masses with virtual reality”. I do not envy her task.

Make augmented reality happen instead

Virtual reality aims to replace the real world and temporarily immerse the user in a fake one for some purpose. Augmented reality places a digital layer of something on top of the real world. (Just remember the craze over Pokemon Go a few years ago.) AR, not VR, has greater potential.

Snapchat highlighted an example at the Partner Summit last week. According to a Bloomberg report on Friday (paywalled), American Eagle Outfitters sold $2m in products and had 50m engagements from a recent pandemic-driven campaign that used the platform’s AR.

Now, those marketers who are obsessed with disruption and replacing everything with digital technology should contain their excitement. Whenever people ask me about a new marketing fad, I usually respond with a comment such as this one.

NFT is the new Clubhouse is the new newsletter is the new podcast is the new storytelling is the new personalization is the new brand purpose is the new blockchain is the new chatbots is the new growth hacking is the new agile is the new Pokemon Go is the new QR code.

Media plans should not be thrown out every time a new platform or channel comes along. For the foreseeable future within the marketing world, augmented reality will be a compliment to the traditional retail sales process rather than a replacement.

Much of the time, physical stores are not mere cost centers to be replaced. Anyone who believes that is thinking like an economist or procurement department that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Trained salespeople can upsell and increase the amount of overall average purchases. The in-store experience adds to the brand. Over the past year, virtual business events have shown that online experiences are never as good as ones in the real world.

When the pandemic is over, people will rush back to stores because retail shopping is often a fun experience for many. Besides, how many people really want to buy clothes without trying them on first?

Here in Israel, people swamped restaurants once they reopened after the country’s successful vaccination campaign. People did not want to stay at home and continue to order from food delivery apps. Indeed, most things will return to normal after the coronavirus.

At the moment, AR will be useful mainly for people who do not have time to go to a physical store or are too far away from one. It can be a useful technology to have – but it is not a critical one.

Snap should move beyond smart eyewear

At Snap’s Partner Summit last week, the company announced a combination of wearable glasses and augmented reality – a new generation of AR-empowered Spectacles in addition to various AR-facilitated platforms for advertisers.

“Spectacles enable creators to build and interact with their Lenses in real time, tapping into Snap’s expansive AR ecosystem,” the company states on the website.

“Powered by our Snap Spatial Engine, which leverages six degrees of freedom, hand, marker and surface tracking, Spectacles realistically bring your creations to life. With 15 millisecond motion to photon latency, Lenses are grounded in the physical world.”

I have no idea what that means in English.

And there is a catch: the new Spectacles are not for general sale. Yes, you read that correctly. Snap is inviting influencers to contact the company and states that the devices are “built for creators looking to push the limits of immersive AR experiences”.

Still, the copy comes across as though Snap has no faith in Spectacles as a consumer product for which people will pay good money. No for-profit company does anything without aiming to benefit financially somehow. So, what is Snap’s goal for the new Spectacles? Right now, we have no idea.

But noting the failure of earlier incarnations of Snapchat’s Spectacles, I am not surprised that Snap is not selling the latest edition to the public. Unless the company has some grand, secret plan for them, it should drop the device entirely.

Snap – which has always described itself as a “camera company” – should focus on AR e-commerce through mobile devices rather than goofy-looking headwear. While Google has indeed been selling a second version of Glass strictly for business use, Apple abandoned its plans for headsets in 2019 and Intel did the year before.

Just remember one thing: Rachael Leigh Cook got Freddie Prinze Jr in She’s All That by taking off her glasses.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.