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Snapchat has quietly introduced the world to augmented reality

Reuters/Eric Thayer
Snapchat Lenses are popularizing augmented reality.
By Ian Kar
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If there was such a thing as a Holy Grail in technology, virtual and augmented reality would probably be it. Every tech giant—from Google and Facebook to Microsoft and, reportedly, even Apple—have been researching how to connect our physical and digital worlds cohesively.

But Snapchat might be closer than all of them.

One of the most popular features on the disappearing photo and video sharing service are Snapchat Lenses. On the surface, Lenses are just masks, designs, and graphics that are digitally superimposed on your face. Now, it should be noted that this probably isn’t true “augmented reality”—where computers use your location, image recognition, and other data to provide more information on what you’re seeing. But Snapchat’s simplified version of the concept has become popular both with its youthful users and advertising partners.

Snapchatters spend 20 seconds a day on average playing around with Lenses, according to Snapchat’s own advertising page. During the Super Bowl, Gatorade’s Snapchat lens had 165 million views. Similarly, a Cinco de Mayo lens on Snapchat sponsored by Taco Bell got 224 million views. And since Lenses, like other Snapchat content, disappear daily, the stats are doubly impressive.

This engagement could help Snapchat distinguish itself from other social media platforms, Suntrust analyst Robert Peck wrote in a note sent to investors on June 21. “We think that Snapchat is evolving beyond just ‘another social media platform’ and could be headed to be the first ‘social augmented reality platform.’

The concept of a social AR platform may make sense. Snapchat’s been discreetly working on a Google Glass-esque hardware device, which could be used for augmented reality features. And, with the AR features fueling a growth in engagement for Snapchat, Suntrust says that features like Lenses could pull advertising dollars from, say, Facebook or Instagram, platforms which have been seen their rapid growth start to plateau ever so slightly.

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