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Developers and creators are the lifeblood of the AR ecosystem. Platforms supply the tools then devs run with them — a symbiosis that crowdsources innovation. Each side is incentivized as platforms can attract users with more AR experiences, while creators earn a living.

This is why developers are the first sequential constituent in Snapchat’s AR virtuous cycle. The other two are users and advertisers. But zeroing in on the first one, Snapchat has amped up its efforts over the past few years to keep them busy with a steady flow of Lens Studio updates.

So given the importance of kicking off this cycle of creation, usage and monetization, lens creators’ attitudes and experiences are valuable to hear. In that spirit, the LA Design Festival held a virtual panel of lens creators, which we’re featuring for this week’s XR Talks (video below).

Creating Through the Camera: Building an Augmented Reality Future

Alie Jackson, Official Lens Creator
Branden Collins, Visual Designer, Snap
Clay Weishaar, Offical Lens Creator
Sophia Dominguez, Head of Camera Platform Partnerships, Snap (moderator)

Lens Evolution

When looking at AR’s unique attributes as a creation platform, one thing that sticks out is that it’s a lot more dynamic than other creative mediums said Jackson. In other words, other formats are more fixed, such as canvas or clay. But AR lenses take on new life in every real-world interaction.

That principle amplifies when moving from front-facing camera activations (such as selfie lenses) to rear-facing AR. In other words, the possibilities for AR lenses are greater when applied to the broader canvas of the physical world as opposed to compelling, but relatively limited, face filters.

This evolution from front-facing to rear-facing camera is one we’ve been tracking for a while, and has followed a progression from Snapchat’s World Lenses to Landmarkers to Local Lenses. The latter could have the most value in bringing place-based relevance to AR, said Jackson.

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Utility Over Novelty

Moreover, this migration from front-facing to rear-facing camera lenses tracks to a parallel evolution towards more utilitarian AR, says Weishaar. In other words, face filters are fun and have high engagement rates, but AR will gain more cultural value when it’s an everyday utility.

Utilitarian AR is another evolutionary path we’ve followed. Snap continues to track to that evolution considering its moves in visual search, including a partnership with Amazon to identify real-world products. Its Scan feature can also do things like solve math problems on the fly.

These moves have mostly germinated from Snap partnerships such as PhotoMath and Giphy. But Weishaar points out that these utilitarian functions could soon go into hyperdrive given the recently launched Snap ML, which will let legions of developers self-start ML-fueled lenses.

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Camera Marketing

Another key area of development is commerce. Snap is no stranger to this branch of AR, given the success it’s had in monetizing AR through branded lens experiences. But again, these are mostly front-facing AR activations, which limits product categories to some degree (think: fashion).

With more rear-facing camera AR, there will be an opportunity for things like brand portals, such as the Louis Vuitton showroom demonstrated at Snap’s recent Partner Summit. The idea is for brands to create virtual spaces for users to walk through, and see products up close in 3D.

Wieshaar points out that the timing is right given retail lockdowns. But more importantly, there could be a longer-lived period of “touchless retail” in the post-COVID era. As we’ve examined, AR could come to the rescue in supporting touchless shopping through virtual overlays.

Until then, Portal experiences resonate with brands such as Nike, says Weishaar. They’re eager to give consumers a way to experience products, in a way that e-commerce — though it’s exploding in purchase volume — can’t recreate. So AR can bring the best of online and offline shopping.

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Creator Lattitude

In many cases, brands will work with creative agencies or individual creators like these panelists. In the latter scenario, Jackson advises brands to trust creators to do their thing. With that latitude, there’s generally the best results of infusing a brand’s story with a creator’s own twist.

Moving from commerce to altruism, another indicator of AR’s future lies in generational signals. At a recent MIT hackathon, students weren’t creating selfie fodder. Instead, most focused on practical AR apps such as recognizing abnormal spine curvature for early detection of medical conditions.

As for how one gets started with all of this, the panel advises to just jump in. According to Collins, getting started with Lens Studio is the biggest step. From there, it’s a learning process but there’s lots of community support. You can even pull up YouTube for countless hours of how-to material.

“If you can open it, chances are you’re 75 percent of the way,” said Weishaar.

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