With plenty of bad news, Snapchat has an early lead in wooing AR developers

Last weekend, more than 50 people from all over the world visited Snap’s headquarters in Santa Monica to celebrate. A week prior, Snap had announced in its quarterly earnings report that it lost daily active users and the company’s stock price was $20 below its peak. But in Santa Monica, Snap had a growth area to appreciate: its community of creators.

During the company’s first-ever “Lens Fest,” members of Snapchat’s official lens creator program spoke with Snap employees, participated in panels and worked on creative projects. The three-day event came nearly a year after Snap launched Lens Studio, a free tool to create augmented reality lenses for Snapchat. Since then, creators have submitted more than 250,000 lenses, which have been viewed more than 15 billion times on the app, according to Snap. Official lens creators get access to support from Snap’s staff, beta features and potential brand collaborations.

Snap’s Lens Fest comes at a time when the company might be facing another challenge from Facebook on a product that it originally pioneered. In April 2017, Facebook launched its own platform for AR called Camera Effects. In October, it rebranded that to Spark AR. The tool is currently in open beta for Facebook and closed beta for Instagram and Messenger. AR ads on Facebook’s news feed, released in July, is currently in alpha but should expand to beta in the first half of 2019, a Facebook spokesperson said. The fear, for Snap and for some of its creators, is that Facebook will overtake Snapchat in lenses — just as it did with the Stories format.

Frank Shi, co-founder of agency Paper Triangles, said he attended the event with a specific question in mind: “Are we making the right decision going with Snapchat? Everyone knows it’s an AR race. I wanted to know if Snap wanted to invest in this community. Are they thinking about the future, and if so are they supporting us?” Shi said.

Group photo from Snap’s Lens Fest (courtesy of Cyrene Quiamco)

For now, Snap is being well-received in the AR community. Shi left the event believing that building AR for Snapchat is worth his team’s time. His conversations with Snap’s head of camera and product leads on what’s working and what could be improved showed him that the company does actually care, Shi said.

Snap is also interested in working with creators on new features within the Lens Studio, said Cyrene Quiamco, another member of the Lens Creator program who attended Lens Fest. “I’ve seen some of the suggestions come to life so quickly. That’s amazing, to say something and to have a voice in the app,” she said.

Snap’s embrace of creators is a stark contrast from how the company behaved in the past. While YouTube celebrated its homegrown community, Snap kept theirs at bay. But in the last year, Snap has been on a charm offensive, hosting its first Creators Summit and introducing new features such as sticker packs and shoppable AR for creators.

Quiamco was one of those early creators who originally felt ignored by Snap but has since become close to the company. While she’s friends with other Snapchat creators and had helped organize the summit in May, she said Lens Fest felt a bit different since Snap was orchestrating the connections rather than leaving the community to seek each other out.

“For lens creators, Snapchat has been there from the very start. It makes me happy as a creator now going to Snapchat without hustling. OK, you still need to hustle. It’s just hustling a little less than three years ago,” Quiamco said.

Snap’s willingness to invite creators into its offices, listen to their suggestions and actually implement them could help the company in the looming AR battle with Facebook. Snapchat has found more than 50 creators through its official lens creator program, and it’s still seeking out more. Snap’s team definitely “lurks on Reddit,” where creators share their lenses, Shi said.

Also in Snap’s favor is the fact that many creators prefer the AR experiences on Snapchat over the other platforms. One reason for that is how natural AR is on the app and the variety of experiences. Like Quiamco, Chris Higa was also one of the first 15 people to become an official lens creator. Higa said one aspect of the event that excited him was seeing the diversity of lenses, such as portal-like experiences that take people into a scene and others that change people’s hair.

“I’ve seen so many lenses I never expected to see. On Instagram and Facebook, there are only about 20 lenses you can use. We’re bringing over thousands and thousands of lenses, and I don’t think if Instagram tried [to expand] they would do as well the first time,” Higa said.

A panel from Snap Lens Fest (courtesy of Cyrene Quiamco)

While Snapchat has made its Lens Studio extremely simple to use, Facebook’s Spark AR requires more coding skills, the creators said. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention to the other platforms. Alper Guler, co-founder of food-focused AR company Kabaq, wasn’t at Lens Fest, but his team has been building on Snapchat since the launch on Lens Studio.

“When Snapchat opened their platform I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I had built-in views. We have app downloads that are 50 to 100 a day. On Snapchat, I hit a million in one day,” Guler said.

Kabaq hasn’t stopped building on Snapchat. The company worked with Bareburger to make AR versions of their menu items and created an AR experience about the future of food for The Economist.

“Snapchat is our favorite [AR platform] as of today because it’s so native. Facebook is cool, but it’s not really working yet. But I’m watching Instagram,” Guler said.


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