A familiar technology is transforming our interactions with the digital world, and Snapchat’s parent company wants to lead the way.
Ever since Snapchat—sorry, Snap Inc.—filed for its initial public offering, last week, it has been all that anyone in Silicon Valley can talk about. In the documentation that it sent to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Los Angeles-based company reported that it had achieved a sixfold increase in revenue in 2016, and that its hundred and fifty-eight million daily users were generating more than 2.5 billion Snaps per day. When Snap goes public, in March, it may be valued at as much as twenty-five billion dollars. Much of the tech-world buzz centered, as it has for months, on the question of the company’s future potential, given that larger and more established platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have already proved themselves adept at mimicking Snapchat’s features. As the S.E.C. filing acknowledges, “We face significant competition in almost every aspect of our business.” But hidden in the opening pages of that filing is a more interesting declaration. It appears in emphatic black lettering against Snapchat’s signature yellow: “Snap Inc. is a camera company.”
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. Last Tuesday, Pinterest offered a small glimpse of this future in the form of an experimental feature called Lens. “Sometimes you spot something out in the world that looks interesting, but when you try to search for it online later, words fail you,” the company explained in a blog post. Lens allows you to perform a visual search—for clothing, furnishings, recipes, and so on—using your smartphone camera. It’s a self-evident-enough idea, but the reason Lens and other A.R. technologies are being introduced only now is that software is finally capable of supporting them. In the past couple of years, companies including Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have used vast repositories of photos available on the Internet to build intelligent systems that can accurately identify everything from dogs to babies to flowers. The more training data—that is, images—these systems have, the more accurate they become over time. If and when Snapchat makes its foray into A.R., it will have those 2.5 billion user images a day to learn from.
The possibilities that come with thinking about the camera as a portal into the realm of information and services are attractive not only to Snap but also to every other big player in the tech world. Facebook, for instance, has slowly been enhancing the visual capabilities of its Messenger. If you show Google Assistant a pair of Nike Air Maxes, it can not only identify the shoes but also bring up related styles and direct you to a place where they are sold. Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, is high on A.R., too. At a technology conference last fall, Cook predicted that in the near future “a significant portion of the population of developed countries, and eventually all countries, will have A.R. experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day. It will become that much a part of you.” Until fairly recently, that might have seemed like pure Silicon Valley hype. The early entrants into the world of A.R., as with its cousin virtual reality, were disappointing: the phones were too weak, the networks were too slow, and the applications were too nerdy. But now the technological pieces are in place, and a whole generation—much of which is on Snapchat—has come to consider the camera almost a third arm. Yes, Snap is a camera company. It’s just that the camera isn’t a camera anymore.