Why Is Snap Calling Itself a Camera Company? - The New Yorker
Technically speaking, Snap is a camera company, and has been for a number of months. In September, it announced the launch of Spectacles, camera-equipped sunglasses that allow you to record a ten-second video by tapping a button near your left eyebrow. (For the moment, Spectacles are sold exclusively in itinerant vending machines called Snapbots.) But the company’s vision of the future appears to be more expansive than that. “In the way that the flashing cursor became the starting point for most products on desktop computers, we believe that the camera screen will be the starting point for most products on smartphones,” it writes.
The personal devices of the past decade have already made the camera more central to our lives than ever before; it has evolved into a multipurpose tool, a visual sensor, as useful for recording a lunch receipt as for capturing a dazzling landscape. (And don’t forget the screenshot, which has partly usurped the functions of the old-fashioned notebook.) At the same time, the huge demand for smartphones has forced developers to make their cameras better and better, with ripple effects well beyond the industry. Action cameras, drones, low-orbit satellites—many have directly benefitted from this arms race. Cameras can look down from on high and predict crop yields, traffic in Walmart parking lots, and travel patterns on Labor Day weekend. On the ground, they form the foundation of autonomous-driving systems. Snap is betting that the cameras we carry in our pockets could be even more powerful. In its S.E.C. filing, the company contends that “images created by smartphone cameras contain more context and richer information than other forms of input like text entered on a keyboard.”
Snap, of course, is not the first company to recognize that its users’ experience of the world is increasingly mediated through cameras. Consider WeChat, a free messaging app developed by the Chinese giant Tencent. The service, which has hundreds of millions of customers, allows people to use their smartphones to read the data hidden in QR codes. By scanning the codes with their cameras, WeChatters can buy food, call up Web sites, and make payments. According to Allen Zhang, WeChat’s founder, the technology constitutes a “third hand for humans.” Indeed, several years ago, at a time when barely anyone used QR codes, he described them in language similar to Snap’s. “The entry point for PC Internet is the search box,” he said. “The entry point for mobile Internet is the QR code.” Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that earlier this month Snap began expanding the use of QR codes on its platform. And, as Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen and Sarah Frier reported a couple of weeks ago, Snap was at one point in talks with Google to introduce a feature that would have allowed Snapchatters to perform Internet searches merely by pointing their phones at objects in the real world.
That search feature never came to fruition, but it’s a useful indicator of where the mobile Internet is headed. QR codes have always been a kind of half-measure, a useful but inelegant transitional technology; the ultimate goal is augmented reality.