Snap plans to turn every public space into an AR experience

The company’s new Custom Landmarker feature paves the way for AR wearables and raises questions about discovery and business models.

Image of a new Snap landmarker

Snap's new custom landmarkers allow creators to build AR experiences tied to specific locations, like this indie bookstore in New York.

Image: Snap

Snap wants to take AR everywhere: The Snapchat-maker unveiled Custom Landmarkers Wednesday, allowing its 250,000 lens creators to build AR experiences tied to storefronts, sculptures or any other public landmarks.

The feature is a major step toward a future in which AR glasses allow people to access contextually relevant AR content wherever they go, but it also underscores some of the discovery challenges that lie ahead for ubiquitous AR content.

Snap allows creators to build location-based AR content by using both its Lens Studio desktop software as well as mobile devices. The process involves scanning a landmark with a high-end iPhone with Lidar sensor, and then importing the resulting 3D data into Lens Studio.

Some creators who had early access to Custom Landmarkers have said they were able to create geospatially anchored AR content in as little as one day. “This will hopefully hugely scale the number of locations that are enabled for augmented reality,” said Qi Pan, Snap’s Computer Vision Engineering director.

At launch, Snap is primarily relying on creators posting QR codes to make people aware of AR content tied to a specific location. Pan said that this helps people discover AR content, with the benefit of helping them find something they may not otherwise know to seek out. “You may walk across the most amazing AR activation in your life, but you'll never know it because your phone is in your pocket,” he said. “Snap codes are a very good way to start with.”

Snap built Custom Landmarkers with AR glasses in mind and is encouraging creators who have access to the company’s AR-enabled Spectacles to get involved as well. “The power of this comes from being able to really have interesting content everywhere in the world,” Pan said. “Custom Landmarkers allows us to take the very small step towards that [future].”

Pan cautioned that ubiquitous AR wearables may still be five or 10 years away, but he also acknowledged that discovery will be a key challenge companies like Snap will have to grapple with as they prepare for this future. Today, Snapchat users can scroll through a carousel of lenses to find the AR effects or experiences of their choice. AR glasses may require a very different approach.

“If I regularly take the bus, and I walk across the bus shelter, I may want to see the bus times,” Pan said. “But if I don't take a bus, I [probably] don't care.”

With the release of Custom Landmarkers, Snap will also have to figure out moderation around geospatial AR, which can pit private property rights against freedom of speech. Pan said that the company is relying on its existing content moderation approach, which includes reviewing every lens before it goes live.

At the same time, the company is also trying to figure out how to make location-based AR commercially viable. Ahead of Wednesday’s launch, AR developer studio QReal built a custom landmarker for Yu & Me Books, an independent bookstore in New York’s Chinatown. Pan described this as a model for future cooperations between local businesses and lens creators. The goal was to help developers “create a lens for a bookshop to provide some value, and also earn a living from doing that,” he said.

With Custom Landmarkers now publicly available, Snap also wants to put more effort into turning AR into a communal experience. “The more of these kind of locations we have mapped, the more we can actually have multiple people in these locations interacting together in AR,” Pan said. “I want to transition us from taking videos of solo AR experiences to participating in multiuser AR experiences.”

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