The first sighting of the dancing hot dog in the wild happened in June. By the Fourth of July, it had made its way around the world, breakdancing at bars and barbecues, at weddings and bar mitzvahs. It turned otherwise banal videos of the grocery store into cinematic masterpieces starring the hot dog, surmounting the refrigerated Oscar Mayers like a pile of carnage.
Over all, the dancing hot dog—one of Snapchat’s World Lenses, which superimpose digital 3-D objects over the real-life surroundings—has sprung to life more than 2 billion times on the platform. And over time, it’s taught millions of people to stitch together the digital world with the physical one.
The AR-first future is not quite here yet. But when it arrives, it will upend the way we see the world.
The companies behind the push into augmented reality have promised us headsets and glasses, camera-enabled tools to give us cooking tutorials, to help us assemble our Ikea furniture, and tell us ancillary information about everything we see. But that future hasn’t quite arrived. For now, the first glimpses of augmented reality exist mostly on our phones, in a handful of games, apps, and in places like Snapchat. And for millions of people outside of Silicon Valley, who aren’t waiting with bated breath for Magic Leap headsets, Snapchat is quietly teaching them how to love augmented reality.
From the very beginning, Snapchat has considered itself a camera company. Not a messaging app. Not a space for exchanging bizarro selfies. Not even a social media platform. It has at times stretched the boundaries of what that means, building in a Discover tab for interactive news stories and adding in real-time mapping features. But fundamentally, Snapchat has always been camera-first: You open the app, and you’re looking through the lens.
The platform’s most iconic camera feature came in 2015, when Snapchat introduced Lenses: the selfie-enhancing tool that adds a digital overlay on your face. Using the front-facing camera in the app, Snapchat’s facial mapping technology could register your face, render a 3-D model, and drape the digital image over it, transforming you into a dog, or zombie, or just a better-looking version of yourself. Not everyone who uses Snapchat has bought into features like Maps, Discovery, and certainly not Spectacles—but Lenses soon became synonymous with Snapchat itself. In many ways, those filters taught people to how to selfie—look! you can Face Swap with Mount Rushmore!—as much as they trained gave people their first glimpse of augmented reality.
Then, in April, Snapchat launched something new: World Lenses. They worked just like the original lenses, except that they used the rear-facing camera to transform everyday scenes into magical, gamelike experiences: You could animate your picnic with a floating rainbow, or watch a reindeer dancing on your coffee table. Looking through the Snapchat camera lens, you could bring cartoonish 3-D objects to coexist with the kids or the dog, like an episode of Blues Clues.
Snapchat didn’t invent the wheel here; developers have been building the mixed reality future for years. But for the most part, that future has looked at best mysterious, even dubious, to people outside of the tech space. Just look at the popular failure of Google Glass. “The idea that people had a computer on their face, which had a camera in it—there was this massive cultural social backlash against it,” says John Hanke, the CEO of AR software company Niantic. “I think it was in part because people really didn’t understand what augmented reality was going to do for them.”
Last year, when Niantic introduced Pokémon Go, Hanke says he saw a major shift. The technology wasn’t perfect, but because people could use their phones—not a clunky headset that cost hundreds of dollars, but the device that’s always in your pocket—they warmed up to AR a lot more quickly. And because Go is a game, not an application that’s meant to scoop up data and information with its camera, people were much more willing to try it.
“There’s all of the reward you get when you level up in a game like Go,” Hanke says. “You can look at filters in Snapchat in a similar way. It’s kind of janky to get it to line up correctly, but I can put it on social media and my friends will give me positive feedback for that. For the effort you put in for putting up with the new technology and trying to make it work when it’s not perfect, there’s ample reward.”
When Snapchat’s dancing hot dog was born, it worked for exactly that reason. Snapchat didn’t call the ambulatory tube of meat “augmented reality,” or explain all of the complicated technology that powered it. It was simply fun. You could place it on one end of the room and walk toward it, watching it grow larger with every step. You could make it dance on the coffee table at a party, without questioning how this digital object could recognize the table as a surface. The dancing hot dog showed Snapchatters what it could be like to live and play in AR by showing them something silly, not something high-tech.
“From our perspective, it’s all about reducing the friction,” says Eitan Pilipski, Snap’s vice president in charge of the camera platform. “Everyone’s talking about the technology, the construction, 3-D tracking. What we tried to do is hide the complexity from our community.”
After the Great Hot Dog of summer, Snapchat continued to roll out 3-D characters using its World Lenses. The platform launched an art initiative with Jeff Koons to bring 3-D versions of famous artwork to life; in September, Snapchat added Bitmoji to its roster of World Lenses, so you could watch your mini me gulping an animated cup of coffee on your laptop on Monday morning. In some ways, these features feel simplistic: Magic Leap this is not. But that’s exactly the point. This isn’t some revolutionary, game-changing idea, and that makes it much easier for the average person to buy into the idea of augmented reality at all.
Snapchat says one-third of its daily users—about 173 million people in total—play with Lenses, for an average of three minutes per day. That’s significant: People are still just dipping their toes into AR experiences with retail, mapping, and all the rest. Snapchat, meanwhile, sees hundreds of years of playtime with augmented reality every day. Those people represent a market that will become more likely to explore other AR apps, and eventually shell out money for headsets and glasses. Snapchat has created over 3,000 Lenses to date, but animating your face or a 3-D character in the world is just a small sliver of what people will be able to do in augmented reality. People who have liked that experience will probably be open to trying more.
This month, Snapchat announced Lens Studio, a DIY AR app that lets users create their own 3-D characters. This follows dedicated AR developer kits from Apple and Google, with one key difference: Lens Studio is for everyone, not just developers. The app offers a range of templates and tools that make it easy to create a new AR Snapchat lens, whether you’re a powerful 3-D animator or someone with no experience at all. “You build your experience, you submit, and you share it with your friends,” says Pilipski. “We’re trying to make it as simple as possible.”
It’s telling that people were chasing Pokémon before Apple, Google, and Facebook each began rolling out their visions of the AR future. Games have always been on the forefront of innovation on computing platforms: Games like Pong preceded microcomputers, video game consoles came before PCs, Gameboy foreshadowed the mobile handset. And so before AR fully replaces the way we find new restaurants, shop for furniture, drive, or date—with headsets and glasses and all kinds of other hardware—it’s important that people get acclimated to mixed reality in a way that’s effortless and fun. Thanks to the dancing hot dog, some of us are ready now.
© 2018 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
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