The Magic of Snapchat Spectacles

It was October 2016, Snapchat had just announced these new, circular (supposedly) connected glasses. Some said they were for taking photos, others a key to our futures in augmented reality. A few people, with friends at the company, had tried them on “for two seconds in LA.” “I’m not allowed to say anything about what they’re like. But what I can tell you is that trying them on was the most magical product experience I’ve had in the last three years,” said a friend, sworn to anonymity for fear of “Ghost” level retribution.

As I heard these stories, read the coverage, even saw the first LA launch, I was skeptical. Startup Land is full of hype and it often seems, if not inversely, not at all correlated with long term impact. How “magical” could they really be anyway? Weren’t they just a camera? As the hype reached its fever pitch and rumors of a 2017 IPO started, the specs started feeling like a fabricated marketing push rather than real magic. But as I heard more reviews, one after the other positive, a few more even using that word “magical,” my curiosity got the better of my skepticism.

Of course, the New York launch was accompanied by 10 hour lines, freezing cold, and (worst of all) Midtown Manhattan. No “magic” was worth that odyssey. I considered an alternative — the Craigslist underworld — but couldn’t justify the facing the darkness that lives there. Luckily for me, my girlfriend’s bravery outstrips my own, and under the tree (this is a metaphor — I live in New York) I was greeted by a tennis ball-shaped package: Spectacles. Despite the fact that I had spent the previous weeks convincing myself they were a frivolous toy, emblematic of the consumerism propagated by tech companies, I couldn’t help but be excited opening them.

Everyone was right. But what makes products magical?

I’ve been playing with my spectacles for the last few weeks and they are magical. I’m still not quite sure that they’re a vessel for augmented reality, visual interfaces or innovations in optics, but what’s clear when you put them on — and is difficult to grasp prior — is that this is not the point.

“Magic” is the elusive and ambiguous golden egg of tech. We know it when we see, feel or experience it, but there’s not really a formula to build a magical product. Even so, when we think of the most impactful products of the last decade, the word “magic” often comes to mind. So I thought I would try to enumerate some of its characteristics.

This is not an exhaustive list. Those of you in design, UX and product management may have things to add or bones to pick. There’s certainly no clear formula (or we’d have more of it), but here goes:

Magic is…

  1. Insanely easy to use — I had a handful of people try the specs out, from my 50-plus-year-old Dad to my five-year-old niece and everyone just got it…almost instantly. Products like these, the ones everyone “just gets” the first time they try them are magical. What’s not so magical? User manuals, controllers with 100+ buttons, Ikea furniture (But the allen wrench might be!).
  2. Intriguing — I’ve found the “before” is as important as the “during” and the “after” for magical experiences. Even IRL magic shows have lead-ins before the trick. As far as products go, setting the stage is also key. This could be through a beautifully designed product, package, marketing campaign: anything that will get people to ask “What is that?!” I hate to risk feeding the hype machine, but I must acknowledge that it has a place in creating magic.
  3. Creative, not necessarily innovative — Part of my skepticism was right, spectacles are just a head mounted camera, and that’s all they may ever be. Sure there are some custom components built in, but the high level inputs (camera + Bluetooth + glasses + glue) are technologies that’ve been around for years; some centuries. And that’s ok, spectacles don’t need to incorporate AR, AI, bio-tracking, etc, to be magical: that’s not the point.
Magic can be a mashup of existing tech, new in concert, but familiar individually.

Magic is not…

  1. The only goal of a product — So people like your product, but don’t call it magical. Who cares? Some products are innovative, some are fun, some are utilitarian. All of these types of products can be successful. Mainframes weren’t magical (the Internet was). Most of today’s robots aren’t magical (Watson winning Jeopardy was). Plenty of innovative products that are foundational technological progress aren’t magical and the world is still better for it.
  2. Everlasting — Plenty of magical products end up collecting dust a few years down the road. I’m still in love with my specs, but many of my friends have moved on. The fleeting quality of magic is what makes it so special when we experience it time and again.
  3. A fool’s errand — I know a lot of developers who hate trying to build “magical” products. After all, magic is as easy to undershoot as it is to overshoot (hello Sharper Image). Some think that their time is best served focusing on “hard” problems, rather than chasing a feeling. I agree that it’s easy to waste time trying to create magic out of nothing, but we’re also in a fascinating time where so many new technologies on the of brink breaking out are just lacking that special something, the fairy dust — AI, 3D printing, Blockchain and VR to name a few. For many of these technologies to go mainstream, someone will have to develop a product that straddles cutting edge innovation and an approachable and enjoyable user experience. An example? the Amazon Alexa. Alexa hasn’t taken us to the AI promised land, but it’s at least built a useful doorway for us to get there.
Elusive and vain as it might be, magic has a place in tech. When we think about the future of emerging technologies, we should recognize its value as a key ingredient.

One of the things magical products do is usher us into new eras of technology even if they (the magical products) themselves aren’t pioneering new tech. The iPhone, launched 10 years ago, seems to be an analogous example to the spectacles. We already had touchscreens, phones and mobile browsers in 2007, but by bringing them together in a special way, the iPhone created magic and pushed the entire world forward. Perhaps not all magical products do this, but they may have the potential to — specifically because of their magical qualities. These are the products that move mountains.

Thanks a million to George Mayer for adding some magic to this post.

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