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Snapchat’s AR Ambitions Take Flight

What Brands Need to Know from the 2022 Snap Partner Summit Keynote

Image: Snap Inc. via YouTube

On Thursday, Snap Inc. kicked off the spring tech conference season with a live-streamed presentation. During the hour-long keynote, the company unveiled a new crop of creative tools on Snapchat, shared some impressive stats on its users, and launched the long-speculated consumer-facing camera drone. There are a lot of noteworthy things to unpack, but the key throughline across all of Snap’s announcements is the company’s unwavering commitment to its strategic plan of becoming the designated Augmented Reality (AR) platform for the next generation of creators.

Here are the three ways in which Snapchat is working towards making its app and the Snap AR platform easier to use for developers, creators, and brand partners.

1. Upgrades to AR Platform Prioritize Accessibility to Court Creators

Snapchat’s latest updates continued to position Snap AR as the most accessible AR creator platform. While Instagram reworked its app to jam in Reels in order to compete against TikTok on algorithmic, short-form video, Snapchat has been holding steadfast to its camera-first, Lens-focused user experience and putting its AR toolkit front and center. And this is a strategy that has been paying off — over 250,000 creators worldwide have built upwards of 2.5 million Snap lenses, CEO Evan Spiegel proudly shared in his opening remarks.

To sustain the creative output of its users, Snapchat introduced new features and products to make AR creation on its app more accessible and convenient. A new version of Lens Studio added several new tracking and anchoring features, including a 3D body-tracking tool that Pixar used to create a promotional AR lens for its upcoming Lightyear movie which will transform users into Buzz Lightyear. A new Director Mode, which will debut on its iOS and Android apps soon, should offer Snapchatters a creative hub with all the editing tools and AR effects in one, easily accessed place.

Another big boon to lowering the creative barriers to AR creation on Snapchat was the Lens Cloud services, a freely available collection of backend services that leverages cloud computing to expand the accessibility of AR creations. This suite of cloud-based AR toolkits includes location services, which will allow creators to create AR experiences anchored to specific locations and landmarks. For example, toy brand Lego used it to build virtual ferris wheels and slides around the downtown streets of London, viewable via the Snap camera.

Lens Cloud also comes with Persistent Storage, which offers creators an easy way to save and share 3D assets in an on-demand manner, as well as a Multi-User Experiences toolkit designed for creating shared AR experiences.

Besides these new tools, Snap also reiterated a few ongoing initiatives geared towards empowering its AR creators and boosting its emerging creator economy, including the Snap Lens Network, a verified membership program that offers creators perks like early access to new Lens Studio features and media collaboration opportunities. as well as syndicated shows starring top Snap creators that it commissioned for its editorial content portal Discover. Coupled with its software upgrades, these initiatives aim to court the next generation of creators that are looking for the best social platform to build an audience and monetize their content.

Both Facebook (especially Instagram) and TikTok have also been unveiling programs designed to woo content creators. Facebook recently launched a content partnership with The Rolling Stone magazine for supporting creators at music festivals, and TikTok recently rolled out a ‘Creator Next’ program to allow eligible music-makers and content creators to monetize their videos. While there have been some dissents on whether creator funds, like the one TikTok famously set up in 2020, are doing enough to support independent content creators, there is no doubt that the next chapter of social media will be won by the platform that is most effective at cultivating a creator-friendly platform.

As the attention shift from Instagram to TikTok in recent years demonstrates, the platform that can offer the best creative tools and content distribution stands the best chance at winning and retaining content creators. TikTok beat Instagram at the shift from image-driven content with a social feed, to short-form videos served through an algorithmic feed. As the shift from 2D content to 3D experiences starts to accelerate, as evidenced by the incessant buzz surrounding the metaverse, Snapchat is well-positioned to attract a growing number of AR creators. Yet, the question remains, will the AR lenses alone be enough to drive more users to Snapchat?

2. New Retail and Experiential Capabilities Expand Use Cases for Brands

Snapchat knows that getting creators on board to make AR lenses for fun is only the first step to building an AR platform. With new announcements aimed at expanding the reach of its content and the use cases of Lenses, the company showed it is committed to building a brand-friendly platform, especially when it comes to retail and event activations.

Snapchat has always had a keen interest in developing brand-friendly AR tools. One of the key use cases for AR has been virtual try-on for online shopping, and Snapchat has been a pioneer in testing AR shopping experiences. According to the company, 250 million Snapchatters have engaged with AR shopping Lenses for over 5 billion times since January 2021. What’s more, the company noted a 25% decrease in return for purchases made after AR try-on, which would alleviate a major pain point for brands selling online.

Doubling down on its AR shopping experiences, Snapchat introduced new creation tools that brands can tap into: such as a new Snap 3D Asset Manager that simplifies the development and management of 3D assets. With its proprietary AR image processing tech, select apparel brands can leverage product images they already have in their catalogs to create AR try-on Lenses, unlocking faster scalable creation of 3D assets. In addition, new AR Shopping templates in Lens Web Builder also make it easier for brands to import their AR assets and create shoppable virtual try-on and product visualization Lenses. And a full-body try-on feature was also demoed during the keynote to showcase the expanding breadth of AR experiences.

Snapchat also announced a new Dress Up feature that will consolidate the best of AR fashion and try-on experiences from creators, retailers, and fashion brands all in one tab as part of Snapchat’s Lens Explorer page. Snap touted a 42% increase in ROI for brands using Lens with AR try-on to drive purchase, and this new Dress Up tab should help boost more AR try-on Lenses. To participate in Dress Up, brands can simply post the AR Shopping Lenses they created in Lens Studio to their free Public Profile on Snapchat.

Beyond shopping-oriented lenses, Snapchat also highlighted several experiential collaborations aimed at enhancing out-of-home entertainment events. An extended LiveNation partnership for more AR activations at concerts and music festivals was announced, starting with the upcoming Electric Daisy Carnival festival in Las Vegas. Snap will work with the event organizer to enhance stage visuals, and help people try on merchandise products or find their friends in the crowds. In addition, Snap is also working with select museums to create similar AR experiences aimed at digitally enhancing the on-site experiences.

Notably merging AR commerce with experiential events, Snapchat created a scavenger hunt-style shoppable experience at the ComplexCon last November. Attendees who used the Drop Zone Lens to navigate the show floor would come upon opportunities to unlock exclusive “product drops” from the brands on exhibit. Another “Gift Shop Lens” was created to allow Snapchat users from anywhere in the world to browse, try on, and purchase items from ComplexCon without having to be there in person.

Importantly, Snap Lenses are not confined to Snapchat’s app. With Camera Kit for AR Shopping, brands can bring Snap’s AR try-on and product visualization technology directly into their own mobile apps. Puma was named as a launch partner for creating a footwear try-on Lens and incorporated it in their own app via CameraKit. Snap said these try-on Lenses will soon be extended to websites as well.

As Snapchat continued to expand the reach and the use cases of its AR Lenses, it also remained committed to user privacy. A new data framework — named Minis Private Component System — was created to enable developers and brands to add social elements to their Snap Mini via a template system, in which data passes through Snap’s sandbox environment and remains only visible to users and not the third parties. HBO Max leveraged this framework to add peer recommendation into its co-viewing experiences delivered via its Snap Mini. This framework could be very useful for brands to incorporate an increased sense of online presence to their digital touchpoints, and could be instrumental in Snapchat’s continuous efforts in building out socially driven discovery and multi-user AR experiences.

For brands, especially those that are looking into AR as a key element to level up their ecommerce and event experiences, Snapchat’s growing suite of AR tools and features makes it an ideal partner to explore the nuances of crafting AR experiences that add true value to your brand.

3. Pixy Drone Points Snap Lenses Skyward

Although most of the product announcements on Thursday were focused on Snap’s mobile apps, its AR glasses Spectacles, which have been shipped to select AR creators for early testing since last summer, were frequently mentioned throughout the keynote, as if to remind viewers of its larger AR ambition that goes beyond mobile.

Near the end of the keynote, CEO Evan Spiegel pulled a “one more thing” and announced Pixy, a palm-sized mini camera drone that further expands Snapchat’s hardware experiments.

Essentially a flying camera, Snap said Pixy would operate without controllers and instead use computer vision to follow users to capture video footage from a few feet above the ground. Affordably priced at $229.99, Snapchat is aiming to reach a mainstream audience that may find the current iteration of most camera drones in the market a bit too bulky and unapproachable, with a learning curve on how to properly control them. If drones are the selfie sticks of the future, then Snap wants to make sure its AR filter and Lens are what will be applied to those selfies by default.

Although a toy-like drone made by Snapchat may seem a little silly to some, it nevertheless extends Snap’s AR pursuit of hands-free photography that started with its first iteration of Spectacles back in 2016. When you combine Pixy along with the camera on a set of Spectacles and the one on their phone, a Snapchat user now suddenly has three potential camera angles to choose from. And the wide-angle long shots captured by Pixy would work perfectly with advanced AR lenses that involved full-body tracking and try-on features, or capturing the multi-user AR experiences shared among a group of friends.

For brands, Pixy is not only a new playful and accessible tool for creating unique content, it also points to the vast potential of AR content that lies beyond its current mobile-centric iteration, waiting for the innovation-forward marketers to explore.

Reassess Snap’s Place in the Social Media Landscape

With 332 million daily users and a market cap of $46.95 billion, Snap is comfortably larger than Twitter, but tends to receive a fraction of the attention.

Source: Snap Inc

This lack of attention has been a double-edged sword: while it allowed the company to largely fly under the regulatory radar and avoid much of the ongoing debate around the detrimental effects of social media on our psychology and democracy, it also led many in tech and media to underestimate the company and the work it has been putting into developing its AR platform.

Unlike editing existing video assets into short-form video platforms, however, tapping into AR experiences will require a new set of creative skills and brand assets that many marketers are only starting to prepare. In a way, this also hinders the short-term revenue growth of Snapchat and restricts the attention it receives from the media industry.

During this keynote, Snap mentioned it is now used by three-quarters of people aged 13 to 34 in more than 20 countries. For the younger generations, AR has already achieved global scale as it awaits to break out of mobile and onto AR headsets and glasses. For them, Snapchat’s AR offerings are altering the way they shop, play games, and socialize with each other.

Yet, for the majority of people outside that demographic, a viral joke tweet or an Instagram meme post would seemingly hold more value than a new AR try-on lens that just sold a young guy on a pair of sneakers. AR makers are now exploring utility-driven use cases beyond gaming and entertainment, and Snapchat is at the forefront of this brand-friendly expansion.

To stay ahead of the curve of consumer behavior and innovation adoption, it is typically a good bet to follow the lead of young people. In this case, where the true value of social commerce and engagement lies should be an easy assessment for brands.

If you find any of these announcements or brand suggestions thought-provoking and would like to discuss more about what you should do with AR and shoppable Lenses, please reach out to our VP of Client Services, Josh Mallalieu (josh@ipglab.com) to send a request.

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