LOS ANGELES — No matter how silly and ridiculous they complain the feature is, even non-Snapchat users have appreciated the novelty of lenses.
That’s the special effects tool on Snapchat where with a tap of the screen people can warp themselves in video messages to sprout bunny ears, bee wings, pop star hairdos or their best friend’s mustache.
On Tuesday, Snapchat maker Snap Inc. announced the arrival of a new type of lens — one that naysayers could find additional reason to respect. The update involves lenses that change not people, but the environment around them. People can customize and interact with them in a new way.
Users can drop a resizable virtual rainbow anywhere around them and then walk around it — or crawl under it — on video. They can frolic through a digitized garden of red roses and purple tulips. Or they can film a friend dancing around 3-D word art. That’s a bit more interactive than swapping faces with animals and classmates.
The virtual objects may not get people moving around as much as Pokemon Go, the popular smartphone game that received praise from health experts for inspiring people to explore their surroundings miles at a time. But Snapchat’s world lenses evoke a similar feel. And they eventually could lend themselves to scavenger hunts or other games that layer digital scenes and live smartphone video.
Many companies are designing products meant to drop 3-D digital renderings into the real world. There’s Microsoft trying to bring the blocks, bridges and buildings of the “Minecraft” video game into mixed reality. Facebook-owned Oculus VR is attempting to recreate paint strokes and people virtually. Those companies are leaning on expensive new head-mounted devices to power those experiences, though.
Snap has gained a head start in what the technology industry calls augmented reality because it’s introducing comparable experiences through the smartphones people already own. Though said to be working on new devices, Snap has moved cautiously relative to peers in pushing them out.
The biggest question is how long Snap can maintain its lead. What Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet and Apple lack in Snapchat’s reputation as a cool place for self-expression, they could make up in the massive size of their user bases, research teams and bank accounts, industry analysts have said. The advertisers on which the companies rely for revenue are sure to flock to whichever app has the most users, the experts caution.
Facebook is expected to showcase another advantage later Tuesday. At its annual conference for developers, the company plans to discuss how app makers can integrate with Facebook’s camera functionality.
Facebook theoretically could invite thousands of third-party software engineers to mimic Snapchat’s new lenses or create features that blow past them. Concerns about such copying have weighed on Snap shares, down 17 percent from their debut price of $24 last month.
Snap has few partnerships with outside developers, so far leaning on internal ingenuity to come with new offerings.
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