Snapchat Spectacles could blur a line between fun and privacy

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Spectacles are no longer a U.S. exclusive.
Spectacles are no longer a U.S. exclusive.
Photo: Snap, Inc.

After Google released a limited number of Google Glass devices to eager beta testers a few years back, I found myself one day sitting next to a kid in a coffee shop wearing one.

I waited for the jerking gestures of his head to pause to ask him how he liked this much-hyped future of personal computing. He loved it but wondered if people would ever stop worrying about whether he was covertly filming them.

So when news broke that Snapchat was poised to launch a pair of fun sunglasses with a built-in camera, my first thought returned me to the kid and his one nagging doubt about Google Glass.

Google Glass, for now, is dead and a number of factors sent it and its engineers back to the drawing board. But a fear of surveillance that at times dogged the project was a social issue that could not be fixed like a software glitch.

Snapchat Spectacles: A toy with loaded potential

Spectacles by Snap Inc. — the new brand name to match the company’s venture into hardware — are already being compared to Google Glass. But the two devices sound very different.

Spectacles are jazzy and colorful, hip to wear even as they function as a camera. Google Glass was an attempt to bring computing power to a set of frames (priced at $1,500). Though they were somewhat discreet, shedding comparisons to the Borg, the cybernetic villain from Star Trek, was futile.

Spectacles are expected to retail for about $130 and have a camcorder on the upper right corner with an ultra-wide view. Tap the frames once to begin a 10-second clip. A wearer can tap up to three times for a 30-second clip.

The video can be stored in-camera or move to the Snapchat app in a smartphone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for editing and posting later.

A light on the glasses activates when recording is underway.

Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel told the Wall Street Journal the company has been testing prototypes for a while. He described being blown away by the experience of seeing footage he shot on vacation.

“We were walking through the woods, stepping over logs, looking up at the beautiful trees. And when I got the footage back and watched it, I could see my own memory, through my own eyes,” Spiegel said. “It’s one thing to see images of an experience you had…. It was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I was there again.”

Snap Inc., unsure of how popular Spectacles will be, plans to roll them out slowly to gauge demand. Spiegel describes the product as a toy, but adds that its advantage over a smartphone camera is that it removes “a wall” that’s otherwise in front of the smartphone snapper’s face.

Surveilance-like?

I have grown to love how new technology has disrupted photography. Devices and software bring new creatives to the craft and add rarely seen perspectives for fresh images, from Point of View cameras like GoPro to the growing fascination with the 360-degree take from virtual reality and immersive video.

The irony of Spiegel comparing the smartphone to a wall is that photographers describe shooting with an iPhone as removing a barrier between shooter and subject created by traditional cameras. A shooter’s face is not hidden and he or she can more openly engage the subject, if they choose.

The art of street photography is often created without a subject knowing. Photographers have been stealth in their shooting for decades, walking quietly through the universe to be unnoticed as they work with a small, inconspicuous camera. A street photographer can work under even greater cover with a smartphone.

The “wall” serves a purpose. It provides indirect notice to an alert and unwilling subject who sees it and can then approach the photographer to request an image be deleted or not used. The ethical line for photographing people without their consent is drawn in different places by different photographers.

I doubt that some people who wear Spectacles will even think to have this conversation with themselves.

We have embraced the changes ushered in by technology, but many remain queasy about undetected observation, whether it’s under-the-radar filming or the recording of our search data by our computers. A universal fear is some public embarrassment being recorded, uploaded to YouTube and getting passed around social media.

Part of Snapchat’s appeal has been privacy, how our pictures and messages to one another can disappear. But the company can’t completely monitor how content is distributed.

Earlier this summer, Snapchat was slapped with a lawsuit over sexually explicit content involving a minor allegedly landing on the app’s Discover page.

Wearable lifestyle cameras have been a thing for a couple of years. While body cameras are becoming standard issue for police officers because of the public’s outrage over excessive force, wearable cameras remain a very small niche with consumers.

Packaging one in fashionable sunglasses by a popular brand has the potential to make this wearable camera more ubiquitous. Then again, you might not know.

Snapchat Spectacles: Keep it fun

The Wall Street Journal interview with Spiegel did not cover potential ethical implications. Spiegel emphasized fun and talked about Snapchat becoming independent of the smartphone camera.

There is no denying the potential for fun footage with a point of view that could only be closer to our own eye if we had a camera implanted in it.

It is unlikely fans of Spectacles would wear them for the same amount of time intended for Google Glass. Users should enjoy them for windsurfing, mountain biking, playing with their kids and the like. I can’t wait to see what gets created with Spectacles.

It also will be interesting to see what kind of impact the glasses have on popular culture. And whether some, as I suspect, will be concerned about privacy.

Hopefully, if Snapchat Spectacles become popular, the devices’ users will monitor themselves and, in delicate situations, give those around them the option to avoid their gaze.