Late last week, a Minionesque vending machine mysteriously appeared in a parking lot near Snap’s original offices in Venice, California. It was named Snapbot, and it was there to sell Specs, the company’s goofy new picture-taking sunglasses, for $130 a pop to anyone who got there fast enough. I’m not the only one who tried to beg and bribe LA-based friends to brave the hours-long lines for me, but to no avail. After 24 hours, the machine disappeared.
On Sunday morning, Snapbot resurfaced, this time in Big Sur, the place where Snap CEO Evan Spiegel supposedly had a near-religious experience testing a prototype. I wasn’t missing that. So I drove the nearly three hours from Oakland to the Big Sur Bakery, in the middle of the woods along the Pacific Coast. I arrived about noon, and was already too late—the machine had sold out at 10:45, and word was they weren’t restocking it this time.
— Spectacles (@Spectacles) November 13, 2016
Still, more than a dozen people were waiting in line when I arrived, along the wooden railing outside the bakery where the Snapbot vending machine once was. They were sad but hopeful. Maybe, ventured a shaggy-haired, braces-wearing teen, they’re just charging the vending machine before bringing it back out? He hoped so: he got a speeding ticket roaring up the highway to get in line, and needed to get an extra pair or two to flip on eBay and cover his costs. But he wasn’t worried. He figured Snap was just waiting us out to see who the true fans are. The ones who really deserved a set of Spectacles.
A few minutes later, the mysterious crew tossed the last items into the truck bed and dispersed back to their own cars. A stunned sadness fell. And then one of the Bakery’s baristas stuck his bearded, hat-wearing head out the side window. “I’ve got blue and red ones,” he said. “$600 a piece, $1,100 for both.” After about a half-second of soul-searching, I sidled up to the window, Venmo’d my new friend Matt a cool six Benjamins (for Journalism!), and became the owner of a brand-new pair of Spectacles.
Spectacles are the first camera Snap’s ever made. Like everything the company does, they’re both weird and simple: a pair of oversized, Willy Wonka-looking plastic round sunglasses with lenses on both stems that combine to shoot video with a 115-degree field of view. Press the button by your left temple, and the glasses capture ten seconds of a you-eye-view, in a cool circular format that your Snap friends can spin their phone around to see. It all syncs to a new Specs folder in your app, where you can edit and share just like any other snap.
You pair them by tapping the button and looking at your own Snap code, the dotted yellow ghost that signifies your unique account. It takes a minute to get everything working, but it couldn’t be simpler to do. And from then on, you just tap and shoot, and your Specs snaps transfer automatically to the Memories section of the Snapchat app. The transfer itself is absurdly slow, since it’s happening over Bluetooth, but it does work (alternatively, it can be fast but complicated over an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network). In general, the whole thing feels seamless.
It took me a minute to get used to the idea that my camera sees the world exactly the way I do. I stopped a handful of times to take pictures on the way back from Big Sur—one nice thing about the remote location is that it’s one of the world’s more photogenic spots, along the Pacific coast. Once, I walked up to a gorgeous vista lined with barbed-wire fences. Normally this is no problem: I can peer through the fence, or maneuver my camera lens around it. But with Spectacles on, my first shot was all fence.
I’ve never thought about how I frame my eyesight before, and it’s a bit odd to be so aware of it now. But looking back at what I shot, it really does feel like seeing the world through my own eyes again. The real victory, though, is that this is the absolute fastest camera I’ve ever used. There’s no thinking, no planning, no missing shots, because there’s nothing to pull out or grab or unlock. Just press, and you’re recording.
When you tap the button, a white light comes on in the periphery of your left eye, just bright enough to be visible. That’s the indicator you’re recording, the On Air light. A few moments before your ten-second shot is over, that light starts blinking, telling you to wrap it up (if you’re not done, tap again for 10 more seconds). Anyone looking at you sees a bright white light rolling around in circles like a loading icon. There’s no mistaking, on either side, when someone is or isn’t recording video.
The video Spectacles capture is roughly what I’d expect from Snapchat, which is to say it’s fine but not something you’d want to keep around longer than 24 hours. The new, wider view is amazing: if you tilt your phone sideways, you see more of the picture than you’d get holding your phone vertically. It makes watching a Snap brilliantly interactive, and it’ll inspire new sorts of art that exploit your ability to see most of the frame at once, but never all of it. Spectacles are all about mysteries at the edges of the frame, which is really fun.
When you’re not using the Spectacles, they go in a hard speckled-yellow case, which doubles as a charger. Other than the irritating fact that it’s a proprietary charger and I’m inevitably going to lose the cable that charges the case, the whole system is as simple as can be.
At this point, Spectacles feel like a toy, a goofy lark that Snap could try because it had all that VC money to play around with. Everything contributes to that feeling: The colors, the vending machines, the intentional and sort of mean scarcity. Where Google Glass tried to do everything, change the world all at once, Snap is just trying to do one small thing. Spectacles is a game as much as it’s a product. But don’t forget: Snap is “a camera company” now. And Snap has a history of being right about where the future is going, so who knows? Maybe your next camera will look less like a smartphone and more like a goofy-ass pair of glasses.
Or maybe Spectacles won’t amount to anything, once the craze dies down. But here’s what I do know: Not ten seconds after I paid for my Spectacles, a breathless man came bursting into the Bakery. “I’ll give you $1,500 for both pairs, right now,” he said. Thank goodness Venmo doesn’t have a return policy.