Q&A: Snap’s VP of Camera Platform, Eitan Pilipski

The executive leading Snap’s augmented reality and camera platform explains how the company is preparing for a post-phone world.

Eitan Pilipski. (Photo: Snap)

Perhaps no other tech company has made augmented reality as widely adopted as Snap, the maker of Snapchat.

While the company has struggled to grow its user base and retain executives, there’s no question that Snap has been at the forefront of putting AR, or the overlaying of virtual objects onto the real world, in the hands of normal people. The app’s iconic puppy dog filter and constantly changing roster of AR lenses have now been widely copied throughout the industry. And they’ve served as a playful Trojan Horse for getting Snapchat’s 186 million users comfortable with using AR every day.

At its first-ever Partner Summit last week in Los Angeles, Snap unveiled a slew of AR updates, like “Landmarkers” that turn iconic landmarks like New York City’s Flatiron building into a virtual pizza. A new AR navigation bar in Snapchat’s camera will include Scan, an interface that uses partnerships with the likes of Amazon and Shazam to let users buy objects they scan or identify music around them.

Eitan Pilipski, Snap’s VP of Camera Platform, is the executive who leads the teams of engineers and designers building the company’s camera platform. He reports directly to Snap cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Bobby Murphy, having joined Snap roughly three years ago after spending more than a decade in various roles at Qualcomm.

I spoke with Pilipski at Snap’s Partner Summit on April 4. He explained Snap’s philosophical approach to building AR products, and how the company is creating a camera platform for “self-expression” through creator tools like Lens Studio.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’m curious to hear how you would describe Snap’s approach to AR. Is there a guiding philosophy that you guys have when you’re building products?

Yes. And this philosophy is for the most part driven by the vision that Evan [Spiegel] and Bobby [Murphy] put in front of us for why we’re a camera company and how we’re using the camera to communicate and to share expression.

We fundamentally believe that for augmented reality, the best use of that technology is to drive self-expression. So if you come to Snap to share and communicate with your friends, what augmented reality does as the technology and Lenses as the product is allow you to add a layer of emotions. You personalize the way you communicate. You’re being creative when you share it with your friends.

Snap’s new AR templates for Lens Studio includes hand and pet tracking.

There were a lot of AR-related announcements this week. Would you say there’s a through line between them?

Yes, there is one. I think the thing to take from all the announcements is our true commitment to continue to drive the notion of camera as a platform, and to work with our creator ecosystem. And that’s something we have done since December 2017 by putting Lens Studio out there and acting on the fact that we want to grow as a company and become a platform.

So since the launch today—with the announcements, with the ongoing support—it’s our commitment that this is something we fundamentally believe is crucial to the future of our company. And also to be able to be in a position that, by creating a platform, we can create an ecosystem of creators that are bringing new thinking, new creativity, new diversity of creation.

And at the same time we are able to evolve the engagement, the consumption, the interaction of those creations on the platform. And the hope is that if we’re able to do that and continue to grow, we will be in a better position to know how to be ready when the time is right to shift from mobile to other types of products that we’re working with in Labs [Snap’s hardware group that makes Spectacles] and other types of areas we’re investing in.

It seems like a lot of your work in AR has been very playful to date. It really seems to have been about making things fun. But lately, you also have been pushing into utility. And so I’m thinking of the Amazon partnership. The Scan feature in general. The ability to solve a math equation by just scanning it. Do you think that AR can be an actual utility, a core utility, while it’s still tied to a phone?

So we’re not looking at AR as the defining goal. For us, it’s never about the technology. For us, at the end of the day, it’s what type of experiences, what types of creation, and what type of ways we can drive self-expression. And what we have done with Lenses, we’ve been really fortunate to have a product such as Lenses that showed us that self-expression and creativity is the best way to use such a technology. And because of that, we were lucky to have such a dynamic, engaging community that’s coming everyday and engaging in Lenses. And because of that, we can now try more utility types of products.

So we have done the work with Amazon for ecommerce. Scan a product and now maybe you can buy. Or with Shazam where you can scan in the camera and then you can find the music. And the same thing with Photomath where you can look at a math equation. So because we have this engaging community—this interaction and playtime in the camera through Lenses—we now can try and see how utility can play a part of that.

I think it was a unique approach you all took. Because most other tech companies, they take the utility part first and maybe never even get to the playful part. But you guys decidedly went towards the playful first. Was that Evan and Bobby’s idea? Where did that idea come from?

Yeah. So it’s all coming from the vision of Evan and Bobby challenging us and really holding us accountable to the principle of being the fastest way to communicate. And with the fastest way to communicate, you immediately think about, “Okay, how fast I can send a snap to my friend?” But really the idea behind it is what is the fastest way we can empower you to be creative. What we can do to reduce any friction in terms of how you snap is going to be right. And it’s inherent to the whole idea that the company was founded on, right? How communication should happen.

And Lenses is really just another level of creativity on top of that, where we’re bringing emotions, the ability to personalize what you’re doing through this augmented reality. But the root of that is is all about creativity, self-expression, being comfortable sharing, and expressing yourself. That’s the vision. That’s the vision that we’re following.

You hinted at this a little earlier. But how much of this is just setting the stage for when Spectacles or whatever else is capable of doing full AR? Is this really just setting the stage for when we move away from the phone? Do you think that that’s really where the potential is?

Snap is working on future versions of Spectacles with AR features. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Evan talked about it publicly several times. He talks about this notion of compute overlaying the world. There is going to be a point in time where, he believes, there is going to be a shift, right? You’re going to have this compute everywhere and those experiences will be available. You’ve seen the ecosystem, the industry, already working toward that.

But we are taking a very careful, step-by-step approach to how we think about putting products in front of our community. We call it this AR puzzle, and all these building blocks that we’re building into this AR puzzle — hand tracking, body tracking, landmarkers — it’s all putting pieces into this step-by-step approach. Pushing the envelope, innovating, seeing what our community is inspired by.

We think if we do that right as a platform—when the day comes when other devices will be mature enough—we think that will allow us to be in a better position to have the content but also know about the types of use cases and experiences that will be interesting to our community.

The fact that Apple, Google, and all these giant tech companies with way more money than you guys are also investing in AR software and hardware… how does that factor into your decision making? Does it worry you at all? Do you not think about it?

We think about it. But it’s a great thing. If you think about what’s happening now in the industry, all the big companies have an AR strategy. They’re investing in AR. Look at the Apple devices today versus 10 years ago. This is a great thing for AR because it increases the pie of what’s possible. It drives innovation. And for us, this is fantastic because it’s just going to make devices better. It’s going to make the ability to create robust experiences better. And what we want to focus is not the technology. We want to focus on the experience.

And you have creators making hundreds of thousands of these Lenses. Most of them are not getting paid. I know some of them you have connected with brands. What is incentivizing these creators to make all this AR content?

It’s a great question. As of today, we’re announcing that more than 400,000 Lenses have been created by the community, which is insane, right? We understand that monetization and monetary value to creators is important. But we also want to make sure that we are doing it at the right time.

The fact that now we have this dynamic, vibrant creativity happening on our platform. Every day they’re coming, pushing the envelope, creating again and again and again. For us, it’s kind of a validation that the state of the platform right now is to continue to empower them. And at the same time, making sure that we are surfacing the creations in the most meaningful way to Snapchatters.

So we started with Lens Explorer, which is a feed to show all their creativity. Bobby announced today that coming soon we’re going to have a new way to discover those community lenses through this new mechanism in our app AR bar and Scan. So that’s a platform, right? We’re thinking about both sides of the ecosystem. And right now we want to just want to make sure that we continue to build the platform on the true organic nature and the value we provide to creators to bring their creativity on the platform. And at the same time we launch programs that you pointed out—connecting them with brands, making sure that we are powering their creativity.

Bobby announced today that we’re going to create a dedicated place in the app called the Creator Profile where all the creators now can showcase the Lenses. Snapchatters can discover them. We’re going to give them insights into how their Lenses are performing. So that’s the growing part that we’re doing together with our community as a platform.

Snapchat’s new profile layout for Lens Creators.

Do you want it to be so that someone could make a paid lens one day? Or is that not the model? Do you think it’s more connecting them with brands? How do you think about monetization?

A true platform’s success is ultimately measured by how the ecosystem gets value out of the platform. I just came today from a panel with the CEO of Giphy, Alex, and the President of Geffen Records, Neil. And both of them are saying right now that they have value.

Alex was talking about how he’s able to power his creative community with gifs on Snapchat through Lens Studio and provide them another way to show their creation. Neil was talking about how this will transform how he talks to his customers.

So it’s everything, right? That’s the opportunity that we have with platforms, right? And we’re going to find new ways based on all the work we’re doing now with Photomath and Amazon. So it’s not just one kind of monetization. I think it’s the true value of the platform.

But it sounds like you all understand that it’s something creators want, the monetization opportunity?

Absolutely. We understand that monetization and monetary value is important.

How long do you think it will be before AR is truly mainstream? And I know you might say it’s mainstream now. But I’m thinking of when most people use it either on their phone or eyewear every day. What do you think?

You know, someone once said, “It’s really hard to predict the future.” And I think augmented reality has been misused so many times by the industry. There is always someone saying that augmented reality is going to be the thing that is going to change everything, right? And then every time someone does something with augmented reality, everyone is so disappointed. Like, “This is it?”

I think the fact that Bobby and Evan chose self-expression and creativity as a product that is going to benefit from augmented reality—and really focused on the true value of the product versus the technology—that’s what makes these things so successful on Snapchat and to our community. So I will not predict on this one.

But I will tell you that when you listen to Neil, when you listen to Alex, when you talk to our creators, it is happening right now. They are able to create a new way for them to express themselves. It’s a way for them to push their creativity to the next level. They created more than 400,000 of these [Lenses]. So there is value to them, which has different meanings, right? Depends on the vertical. And I think we should reflect on that and not just underplay what’s happening right now.

I think there is a shift that is happening in the industry and we acted on that shift in 2017 [with the release of Lens Studio]. Augmented reality, or that type of technology, was only accessible to the high-end professionals, right? To the PhDs in computer vision, to the agencies. No longer! Today, you can be a creator, you can download Lens Studio, and you can create an experience on the Eiffel Tower. So we are kind of flipping the old model on its head because we think it’s happening right now with our community.