Snapchat’s latest feature Lenses will change your virtual world

The social media app allows users to change their environment as well as their own appearance with 3D digital renderings on videos before sharing with friends

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 5:22pm

No matter how silly and ridiculous they complain the feature is, even non-Snapchat users have appreciated the novelty of Lenses.

That’s the special-effects tool on Snapchat that allows people to warp themselves in video messages to sprout bunny ears, bee wings, pop star hairdos or their best friend’s moustache.

Snapchat now has a new type of lens – one that naysayers could find additional reason to respect. The update involves lenses that change not people, but the environment around them. People can customise and interact with them in a new way.

Users can drop a resizable virtual rainbow anywhere around them and then walk around it – or crawl under it – on video. They can frolic through a digitalised garden of red roses and purple tulips. Or they can film a friend dancing around 3D word art. That’s a bit more interactive than swapping faces with animals and classmates.

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The virtual objects may not get people moving around as much as Pokemon Go, the popular smartphone game that received praise from health experts for inspiring people to explore their surroundings, miles at a time. But Snapchat’s world lenses evoke a similar feel. And they eventually could lend themselves to scavenger hunts or other games that layer digital scenes and live smartphone video.

Many companies are designing products meant to drop 3D digital renderings into the real world. There’s Microsoft trying to bring the blocks, bridges and buildings of the Minecraft video game into mixed reality. Facebook-owned Oculus VR is attempting to recreate paint strokes and people virtually. Those companies are leaning on expensive new head-mounted devices to power those experiences, though.

Snap has gained a head start in what the technology industry calls augmented reality because it’s introducing comparable experiences through the smartphones people already own. Though said to be working on new devices, Snap has moved cautiously relative to peers in pushing them out.

The biggest question is how long Snap can maintain its lead.

What Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet and Apple lack in Snapchat’s reputation as a cool place for self-expression, they could make up in the massive size of their user bases, research teams and bank accounts, industry analysts have said. The advertisers on which the companies rely for revenue are sure to flock to whichever app has the most users, the experts caution.

On the same day of Snap’s announcement, Facebook launched a mission to make smartphone cameras windows to augmented reality, focusing on what people have in hand instead of waiting for high-tech eyewear.

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg called smartphone cameras an initial and promising platform for augmented-reality features in applications tailored to synch with the social network.

“I am confident now we are going to push this augmented-reality platform forward,” Zuckerberg said, predicting the technology would eventually be incorporated into eyeglasses.

“We are going to make the camera the first mainstream augmented-reality platform.”

He noted an array of things that could easily fill their roles virtually, such as game boards or television screens, with users being able to easily play or view without need for physical versions.

Facebook also introduce a test version of a virtual-reality application that lets people in different locations socialise in virtual worlds using Oculus Rift headgear.

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Facebook Spaces lets Rift users “hang out” with friends in virtual worlds as if they were in the same room in the real world, according to a demonstration by Rachel Franklin, who heads the social VR team at the California-based firm.

“We have only just scratched the surface of social virtual reality technology,” she said.

It’s the first time the company has connected the Rift to its social network in a meaningful way, though it’s a development Zuckerberg hinted at when the company bought Oculus back in 2014 for US$2 billion.

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Facebook theoretically could invite thousands of third-party software engineers to mimic Snapchat’s new lenses or create features that blow past them. Snap has few partnerships with outside developers, so far leaning on internal ingenuity to come with new offerings.

Additional reporting by AFP