Wednesday October 05, 2022

Snapchat’s flying camera

Snapchat has a second hardware product, more than five years after Spectacles was released. Snap has created a drone. The small yellow puck, named Pixy, takes off from your hand and follows you around. It captures video that can then be sent back to Snapchat. This is Snap’s attempt to make a drone friendlier and more approachable that other products on the marketplace. It may also hint at the AR-powered future Snap is creating.
Pixy will be available online starting Thursday for $230 in the US or France. It’s smaller and lighter than most drones available, making it easy to slip into a pocket. It doesn’t have a controller. It takes off and lands on an outstretched hand and uses six pre-programmed flight paths that can be accessed through the dial at the top.
Snap, which primarily operates an app for messaging, would make a selfie drone. This is the first question I ask CEO Evan Spiegel.
He said, “Because our camera company,” to me over video chat. Since 2016, Snap has used this tagline, when it changed its name to Snap and launched its first pair of Spectacles. “Our mission is empower people to express themselves, live in now, learn about the world and have fun together. This product does exactly that.”

Spiegel has been interested for years in drones, dating back at least to 2016, when Snap began to experiment with how the devices could fit into their camera company strategy. He almost bought Zero Zero Robotics, a Chinese drone company, around that time. But the timing was wrong. Investors were skeptical about Snap’s growth prospects as an IPO stock after it copied its Stories feature. The deal fell apart over price. Although the company isn’t always profitable, Snapchat is growing faster than Facebook and has more users than Twitter.
Drones have not yet been adopted beyond the professional use cases and early adopters. Many drones are heavy, loud, and costly. Some even require a permit. Pixy’s main focus was to make it accessible with friendly-sounding propellers that can fit in your pocket. “We finally reached a point where we felt like this was super fun. Spiegel says, “I guess we should probably release that.”

With its swappable battery in, the Pixy is just 101g. Snap claims that a full charge will give you five to eight flights. This can range from approximately 10 to 20 seconds, which is a short flight even for small drones. Additional batteries are $20 and Snap sells a $50 portable dual-battery charger. The Pixy’s 12MP camera can take up to 100 videos and 1,000 photos. All of these are stored locally on a 16GB hard drive.
The footage is wirelessly synced to Snapchat’s Memories section. It is then edited there (it doesn’t capture audio so Snap allows you to use songs it has licensed form music labels), and shared directly in the app or anywhere else. Snap has provided a few Pixy-specific AR effects, and I expect more to come from the company and its creators. Snap’s auto-crop feature quickly transforms horizontal footage into Snap’s standard vertical orientation, with the main subject centered. It’s not the best video quality, but it’s good enough to view on a smartphone.
The Pixy’s main trick, thanks to its bottom-facing camera is taking off and landing in your hands. The front-facing camera must be positioned roughly at eye level when it takes off. Then, it tracks your movements as you move about. To end the flight, just extend your hand towards the Pixy and it will return to your palm. This was my favorite part of the drone’s indoor and outdoor tests. It just works and gives you a rare “wow” moment when it does.
Spiegel views the Pixy a new way to capture moments that are centered around people. This is a narrower view than what drones have traditionally been positioned. He says that Pixy is a way to see the world from a smartphone that can’t fly. “You can see things from a completely new and different perspective. In that way, Pixy is significantly better than what your smartphone can do.
With its simplicity, the Pixy is a standout among small drones. DJI has been making small drones that can fly from your hand and follow you around. These drones have longer battery life and better video quality. These models are more expensive and more difficult to use than the DJI model. They are still more expensive than the Pixy.
The Pixy’s design has some limitations. The device is light so it won’t be useful in windy conditions. Snap advises against using the device over water or other reflective surfaces, as this could confuse the bottom camera that controls flying.
Snap doesn’t expect to make a lot from the Pixy. Spiegel stated that the goal was to “get it in people’s hands and let them play with it.” “And maybe we would make even more with version two if people still love the original product.” Snap may have set too low expectations for version 1, he suggests. “Honestly, we should have done more. It’s now just hard with all the supply chain stuff. It was just not what we expected.”

Photo by Vjeran Paic / The Verge

Photo by Vjeran Paic / The Verge

Photo by Vjeran Paic / The Verge

Photo by Vjeran Paic / The Verge

Photo by Vjeran Paic / The Verge

Before Spectacles was dropped, I noticed Snap advertising job openings in 2016 with the tagline “Toys are preludes for serious ideas.”
This phrase was first used by Charles and Ray Eames, a famed design team. It has been a symbol of how Snap operates. Snap, which began as a sexting app 10 years ago, now has more than 325 million daily users. This includes 75 percent of 13-34-year-olds in more than 20 countries. Every day, more than 250 million users use AR effects, or Lenses. These Lenses were created by letting people wear dog ears and vomit rainbows. They can now solve math equations and let people try on clothes.
Although Spectacles were never a commercial success and Snap underestimated the demand for them initially they are now full-fledged AR glass that many technologists, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg believe will be the next big wave of computing. Snap, despite having less money than Meta and Apple, is the first peer to have untethered functioning AR glasses. There’s also a growing ecosystem of hundreds of developers creating Lenses for them.
Spiegel sees Snap’s hardware efforts as an opportunity to push the limits of what a camera could be. Because it’s how people already express themselves on mobile phones, Spiegel focuses on the camera. He says, “When we look at hardware, it’s really about extending what people love about Snapchat.” “Spectacles’ hands-free nature meant that people could make completely different things, which really changed our view of cameras. Naturally, a camera that flies expands on this idea.
If Spectacles is any indication, Spiegel has many future generations of Pixy in his arsenal. He sees hardware building as a long-term commitment, particularly on the AR glasses side — although he doesn’t see them becoming mainstream for many years. He tells me that it was something he wanted to continue improving on over time, as it was very important for the long-term of his business. AR glasses will not be able to scale up in the near future due to technical constraints. So I don’t think it would be prudent for us to try to push scale for products that aren’t yet ready.
Spiegel believes that Pixy could be more popular than Spectacles in the near future. He says that after trying a few versions of camera glasses, it became clear that the market for them is very small and restricted to people who are looking for that first person POV. “I believe the Pixy market is larger.”

As we begin our conversation, I think that Pixy, just like the first version Spectacles is a Trojan horse for a larger idea. Already, drones are being used to create 3D maps. This would make it easier to build more realistic Lenses that can be grounded in the real world. Snap recently purchased NextMind, a French startup that makes a headband that allows you to control computers using your thoughts. Is there a future where I can wear AR Spectacles and control a paired Pixy with the help of my mind?
Spiegel chuckles when I ask him about this. The Pixy is a toy for now.

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