Social Spectacle: Are We Ready for New-Age Wearables?

TL;DR: Snapchat’s new Spectacles turn social into a functional fashion statement, but will the experience be engaging enough to make Spectacles an essential accessory?

In Christmas of 1989, I received the coolest-looking and least useful present of my childhood: the Nintendo Power Glove. Supposedly, this bionic extension allowed you to play a video game simply by moving your hand or arm in certain prescribed motions. For instance, you could mimic turning a steering wheel to drive an on-screen car.

In reality, the Power Glove required hours of troubleshooting to get it setup, at which point I realized that controlling something with hand movements was actually less fun than pressing buttons and directional pads from my finger.

But the dream of tech company creating a real-world tool connected to their digital realm remains strong, over 25 years later. Nintendo eventually mastered it, with their various iterations of the Wii remote.

Social media companies have proven enthusiastic, if surprising, supporters of the idea. Just before going public, Snap Inc., responsible for the wildly popular social network app Snapchat, released Spectacles for sale online. Previously these colorful glasses, which allow you to capture what you’re seeing on the app, were only available via kiosks in select cities.

With spectacles now available for anyone to purchase, the Snapchat network extends into the wearable world.The rollout has been flagged as a bold attempt to increase the popular app’s profitability. But what larger trends does this headwear portend?

Social is a Lifestyle

Ever since the first food photo was posted to a newsfeed, people have utilized social networks to share their lifestyle. The advent of Spectacles and similar social-first devices (the glasses, after all, do not have prescription lenses or protect against the sun) suggests a life lived for social, not merely shared on it.

In contrast to augmented reality devices, like Google Glass, Spectacles ask users first and foremost to share their enhanced experience with the world, instead of closing it off in a separate reality. With a lower price point and a more obvious benefit to the high-volume poster, Spectacles change the formula for committing to the wearable experience.

Social is a Signal

Spectacles look similar to normal sunglasses, but still stand out due to their color and small-but-noticeable cameras. Previously, there was no subtle way of indicating your heavy use of a social network to the outside world, unless you were walking down the street with your Instagram handle printed on your hoodie. Wearing Spectacles signals that you are a sophisticated power user of one of the trendiest social networks, and invites other users to approach you in real life, for better or worse.

Social is not an Option

The creation of practical, real-world extensions of social media tools assumes that for some, these networks are no longer an optional diversion but a necessary undertaking, like having a checking account. Just as mobile banking on your smartphone made financial transactions less cumbersome, Spectacles make the process of sharing what you’re doing more convenient. The transformation of social from an amusement to a utility can only happen when the real world begins to be built around your online networks.

Other social media companies may also need to come onboard for this new world to form. Facebook, which just released Facebook Camera last week, may be next with strong indications that wearables could appear at their F8 developer conference this year. If these companies can convince enough people to strap their networks to their arms or faces, content providers will eventually be forced to respond.

Spectacles are destined to spark more demand to capture the experiences in real time, but the looming question is if the world is finally ready for this.

In the end, users must agree to adapt real life experiences into ones which accommodate social networks before all else, accepting the mild inconvenience of wearing camera glasses or smart watches as a worthwhile tradeoff for sharing and augmenting reality. Snapchat needs to make the experience absolutely essential, justifying the loss of privacy and the increased hassle, as any successful social network does. Otherwise, we’ll be slipping our Spectacles back into the box, and only bringing them out for show and tell with our Power Glove and Google Glass.