Why Snapchat might just win the augmented reality wars

Silicon Valley's favorite "camera company" has a smart plan to save itself

The sheen seems to have come off Snapchat. For a while, the messaging app once associated with teens and sexting promised to become the next Facebook, engulfing both how we chat and how we consume media. But since parent company Snap Inc.'s IPO in March, its stock price has slipped precipitously. Their novel and interesting camera glasses generated a burst of hype, but sold 150,000 units. Most threateningly of all, Instagram Stories, which copied the format of disappearing short form video, has now surpassed Snapchat in both users and growth — and all this in just a year. Suddenly, far from being the next Facebook, Snapchat looks more like Twitter: a popular service struggling to grow and even remain viable.

But the company is not giving up. Snapchat is now getting significantly increased capabilities related to location. With a new feature called Context Cards, users will be able to not only share their location with friends, but the app will connect to other services like Foursquare, Lyft, and Open Table to allow them to research restaurants, call a ride, or book a table from relevant snaps. Suddenly, Snapchat has the potential to not just be fun, but useful.

It's a small change, but it also augurs Snapchat's last, best hope: to become the app in which users do everything from messaging, to watching the news or shows, to now navigating cities and towns to discover things. And the approach, in which apps and services become a key way in which consumers relate to commerce, socializing, or discovery, is not just Snapchat's goal, but is the impetus driving much of the modern tech world.

In that sense, what tech companies like Snapchat, Facebook, and others want is to become the platform for what you might call augmented reality. Right now, thanks to its recent prominence in smartphone launches from Apple and Google, the term augmented reality conjures images of cartoon monsters bouncing on screens or digital teacups balancing on real dogs' heads.

But the kind of augmented reality that interests tech giants might better be thought of as an intermediary layer between their users and the entire world. It isn't simply about what you can do for fun, but how the phone and its camera become a lens through which to view the world.

It is no coincidence then that Snap Inc., primarily known for making an app, now calls itself a camera company. It is the image taken through a connected device that is their business. As a recent Wired profile of CEO Evan Spiegel points out, Snapchat is predicated on the idea that images rather than words will become the dominant medium of communication in the age of the connected camera. There is certainly a case to be made. Users of Snapchat visit the app up to 18 times a day, and the news and entertainment programming in the app's Discover section boast high viewership; NBC's new show garnered 29 million viewers after it launched. Users also spend about half an hour a day in the app, which is significant.

With that much time spent in the app, all those snaps sent back and forth form a kind of connective social tissue, a way in which people are relating to each other. Snap's new approach makes a lot of sense: Let those images tagged with a Geofilter or that are made public reveal contextual information about what is close by, a move that will also allow for partnerships and advertising based on that data.

What it will also allow, however, is for Snapchat to become a method of discovery. Right now, savvy users can use Snapchat's recently launched map function to get a bird's-eye view of the snaps people are sending in a given area. Want to know what people are posting from, say, a storm in the American South, or a hot summer evening in New York, and you can use the map function to flip through random strangers' public posts. But once those posts have the new additional information about what is close by, it also lets Snapchat's committed users then discover what else is nearby.

The point is that it's one more reason for users to stick to the one app: to have it become their home base in which they are staying in touch with friends, keeping up with what's going on in the world, and exploring the world around them. It is quite simply reality, augmented by a Silicon Valley platform.

It's that aim that also drives other companies. Facebook, for example, has long since ceased to simply be the place that people post baby pictures. Instead, it is the app people use to organize their social life, get the news, discover products, send messages, just to name a few functions. It's the app as life organizer.

That approach has an obvious appeal for companies: In capturing the user so totally, you also capture reams of data, and their attention, which is the engine of the digital economy. It also belies the winner-take-all approach of social apps, as the network effects of wanting to be on the same platform as friends and family translates into economic power for digital companies.

For the users themselves, however, it may give reason for pause. After all, placing so much of one's life into the hands of just one private company is eventually bound to have a downside. There is a growing sense of skepticism about the benevolence of Silicon Valley tech companies. Snap Inc.'s aim is simply to become indispensable, and its augmented reality-like approach seems like the only sensible path forward to rectify its faltering growth and revenue.

It may, however, be coming at a strange time — that in becoming so useful, it will be social apps themselves that will start to seem a bit less shiny.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the number of camera glasses sold. It's been corrected. We regret the error.


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