A Hypothesis on Snapchat Spectacles' Success

(Or, Phase States of Function, Fashion, and Tech)

As someone with a bachelor’s degree in geology, I feel pretty confident defining a ternary phase diagram. These charts typically define minerals with similar elemental composition—a few more calcium ions that wedge themselves into a mineral structure made for sodium, and andesine becomes labradorite. But, they’re pretty expletive useful for charting anything that occurs on a spectrum with three endpoints. Enter: the fashion-function-technology ternary diagram and the unique position of Snap Spectacles among wearable technology products.

Let’s define what’s going on here, first. On a ternary diagram, objects are plotted according to the proportions of the three characteristics, or variables—here, we have fashion, function, and technology—and those three variables will sum to 100% for any object. 

So, anything situated on a vertice (or point) of the triangle is 100% of that extreme; an object plotting at the fashion vertice, for example, would be considered 100% fashion, 0% function, and 0% technology. (Items like chokers or ascots occur here.) This point is also in the marketable phase state—we predict these items will see commercial success in the current market.

Let’s also look at touchscreen gloves. These are less fashionable than a classic glove, but more functional, as two of the finger pads can interact with your smart devices while you’re out in the cold (perhaps waiting for a ferry on Pier 11, if you’re like me.) The technology used in the glove itself, as an object, is pretty simple: conductive threads in the finger pads bridge the circuit that a regular glove would break. Let’s say, 30% fashion, 60% function, and 10% technology. This point also plots in the marketable phase state.

Now, consider Google Glass, widely considered a spectacular wearable technology fail. They’re hardly fashionable—off-trend glasses frames attached to what looks like half of a halo traction device you might wear to treat scoliosis. They were functional, though, and certainly integrated a large amount of technology. Probably more technology than was functional (yet.) So, 0% fashion, 40% function, and 60% technology. This plots decidedly in the unmarketable phase state.

But what’s the deal with the white area on the chart? And when are we going to get to the Spectacles?!

The white space is no man’s land. No products in the market crop up in this field; thus, no phase state. SnapChat Spectacles, however, break through phase barriers into new territory, into no man’s land.

SnapChat Spectacles are relatively fashionable. They look like typical sunglasses, and reviewers reported that very few people noticed they were wearable tech, not just trendy shades. Google Glass was goofy, whereas Spectacles appear sleek. They have a decent amount of video technology in their design, enough to load mobile-quality resolution videos directly into the SnapChat app. I see their technology roughly matching their functionality at this point. One can certainly imagine more advanced camera technology that allows for higher res video, and therein greater functionality, but as they are, Spectacles don’t incorporate unnecessary tech design and are pretty dang functional. 40% fashion, 30% function, 30% technology.

SnapChat Spectacles are a new type of wearable, one that’s proving highly marketable in very limited distribution. Whether or not they will see profits in a nationwide or worldwide launch scenario remains unclear, but the truly remarkable thing about Spectacles is how they really diverge from wearable tech options we’ve seen before, as evidenced in the ternary diagram I’ve sketched in Illustrator. This is perhaps why Snap, Inc.’s valuation is rapidly increasing, and why analysts predict SnapChat will grow even larger over the next quadrennium. 

You might be wondering, why don’t other products crop up in this “no man’s land”? Seems like an obvious new market space! Well, I think it’s hard to land here. Snapchat had to think small to keep these three variables in harmony—a tall order for an estimated $30 billion technology company—and hold back on the camera resolution in favor of a more balanced product. It’s risky to land here, as well. Exiting a phase state means you don’t know whether or not your product will be marketable. Spectacles aren’t really a camcorder replacement, and they aren’t an app… there’s really nothing to compare them with when predicting market placement.

So, are Spectacles the vanguard of a new generation of technology that hits the fashion-function-technology trifecta? Is Snap, Inc., still a typical social media company, or is it growing into something more, some new kind of phase state made of the unique conditions of the 21st century? A well-hashed NY Times article just declared gadgets dead, but is there perhaps a chrysalis happening in consumer marketplace where the next generation of gadgets will just be so much more than their predecessors?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I, for one, am definitely in the market for a pair of Spectacles.

Note: Where various wearables fall in the fashion-function-technology ternary diagram illustrated here are my own opinions, not based on empirical data or surveys.