Health Care Needs Some Spectacles

Kim BellardI've never written about Snapchat.  I didn't really get the point of its namesake app, the point of which was to post content that automatically disappeared.  I knew it was wildly popular among teens and celebrities, both of whom undoubtedly had more content they wished wouldn't persist than an old fogey like me, but it just seemed purposely trivial.

With their recent introduction of Spectacles, though, I figured Snap Inc. (as the company renamed itself) deserves a closer look.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story (as Business Insider also did) with an in-depth look at Spectacles.  It is not a new app, nor some new service on its existing app (which continues to be called Snapchat), but rather a piece of hardware: a pair of sunglasses that can record short videos.  Users can record ten to thirty second videos, taken from the sunglass's perspective.  The videos can then, of course, be uploaded to Snapchat, where they also will self-destruct.

Lights on the inside of the glasses will alert users that they are recording, and -- unlike with Google Glass's similar capability -- an external light will let surrounding people know they are being recorded.

Snap believes Spectacles allow for a more natural experience than using a smartphone camera.  The recording is more like what one would see, since they both are from the eye's POV and because it uses a 115-degree-angle lens to record a circular image.  More importantly, it frees your hand, much like GoPro does for adventure junkies.  As Snap's CEO Evan Spiegel points out, you're not holding your smartphone in front of you "like a wall in front of your face."

Snap has even gone so far as to label themselves a camera company, a curious move in an era where former camera titans like Kodak and Polaroid are trying to reinvent themselves out of that business.  As Mr. Spiegel described it to WSJ, "First it was make a photo [studio portraits].  Then it was take a photo [portable camera].  And finally it was give a photo [instant Polaroids evolving to smartphone selfies]."  He thinks this is a business with a future.

Spectacles are mounted on hipster sunglasses (available in three colors), are priced at $130, and will be offered in a limited rollout this fall.  Mr. Spiegel calls Spectacles a "toy," but plenty of people are taking it seriously, as the flurry of press it has received illustrate (e.g., Christian Science Monitor, Fast CompanyForbes, The New York Times, TechCrunch, and Wired).  The consensus seems to be that it bears watching, and won't share Google Glass's premature demise.

Snap isn't finished with Spectacles. "We’re going to take a slow approach to rolling them out,” Mr. Spiegel told the WSJ. “It’s about us figuring out if it fits into people’s lives and seeing how they like it."

Snapchat is used by over 150 million people daily -- more than Twitter -- and more than 60% of 13 to 34 year-old smartphone users have it.  As the NYT reported, more than 35 million U.S. users watched portions of the Rio Olympics using a Snapchat channel -- "there was more Olympics footage and content on Snapchat then there was on NBC" --  and media companies are flocking to produce Snapchat content.

No wonder Facebook first tried to imitate Snapchat (Poke, anyone?), then buy it (a supposed $3b offer).  They're paying attention.

There are several lessons here:

1.  AR awaits:  Yes, right now Spectacles are just taking videos, but don't expect that to remain the limits of its capabilities.  Snapchat already offers various features (e.g., Lenses and Geofilters) to alter conventional smartphone photos, and adding augmented reality options makes sense.  Honestly, would you rather experience AR through your smartphone screen or in your field of vision (as Google Glass attempted)?  Not much of a contest.  I'm a big believer in how AR/VR will inform us and transform many of our experiences, and one of Spectacles' descendants is a very real possibility to help deliver those.

2.  Goodbye Smartphone:  Yes, we increasingly love our smartphones.  They are the Swiss Army knives of personal electronic devices, offering features undreamed of just a couple decades ago, to the point that even using the term "phones" in the name no longer reflects a main purpose.  As multi-purpose and omnipresent as they have become, there still is that awkwardness of having to hold the device.

We still are not at an Internet of Things environment (IoT), but we will be in less time than it took to go from cell phones to smartphones.  So apps and services that are built on smartphones better start looking for other, less device-specific platforms.  I'm not suggesting that Spectacles is, in any way, that platform, but at least Snap Inc. understands the problem.

3. Define Your Industry -- Don't Be Defined By It:  Snapchat was, and still is, sitting pretty in the messaging industry.  Messaging is big.  Facebook is pumping lots of money into Messenger and Instagram, suitors are falling over themselves to try to buy Twitter, Google has high hopes for Allo, and WeChat still hopes to take over the world outside of China.

Meanwhile, Snapchat's parent company wants to be a camera company.  That might sound dangerously backward-looking, but when Mr. Spiegel says Snap Inc. is a camera company, he doesn't mean that in the traditional sense.  As he told the WSJ, "It’s about instant expression and who you are right now. Internet-connected photography is really a reinvention of the camera."  Snap Inc. is reinventing the industry they are in.

Look at it this way: Snap won't be dependent on some other company's camera sitting on some other company's device to generate content.  Maybe not so backward looking at all.

In health care, bold thinking is for hospitals to relabel themselves as "health systems," or chiropractors to call their offices "wellness clinics."  That's nothing like a hugely successful messaging app company declaring they are in the camera business and producing hardware to support that vision.  Snap may succeed or they may fail (just ask Google), but what they are doing takes guts, and a vision of the future that doesn't just look like more of the same.  If any industry needs those, it is health care.

OK, health innovators: what is your parallel to Spectacles, and what industry do you think you're in?

Health Care Needs Some Spectacles was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.