An AR glasses pioneer collapses

In the first days of 2017, Osterhout Design Group arrived at CES with a two-story booth and huge promises. The startup’s founder, Ralph Osterhout, wanted to take the small San Francisco-based company even further past its military contractor roots in AR, building out major enterprise and consumer businesses with flashy new product lines. The company had just raised $58 million, and the Las Vegas electronics show served as its launchpad for its R-8 and R-9 augmented reality glasses lines that Osterhout hoped would bring “glasses to the masses.”

Less than a year later, however, the company had burned through its funding and couldn’t pay employees. By early 2018, ODG had lost half of its workforce as it sought loans to pay back employees. Today, a skeleton crew awaits a patent sale less than a week away after acquisitions from several large tech companies, including Facebook and Magic Leap, fell through, multiple sources tell TechCrunch.

ODG founder and CEO Ralph Osterhout

Ralph Osterhout, 73, founded ODG 20 years ago as a high-tech toy company, built after his previous venture, Machina, collapsed in what a Wired report at the time called “a spectacular bankruptcy.” After underwriting ODG with $14,000 of his own cash, Osterhout kept the startup plugging along on its own merits before he decided that it was time to reach for outside funding to turn his company into a powerhouse in the burgeoning augmented reality industry. At the end of 2016, the company raised a $58 million round led by 21st Century Fox.

ODG was already getting thousands of orders for its R-7 glasses, an enterprise-focused product that it billed as a head-worn Android tablet that could help workers go through checklists, review documents and share live video feeds hands-free. Osterhout wanted to get AR glasses into the hands of consumers and take advantage of new tech advances, even as Magic Leap was teasing the release of its own heavily hyped consumer product.

“I hope Magic Leap is a huge success. I want everyone in AR to be a huge success,” Osterhout said in an interview with TechCrunch in 2017. “[Augmented reality] is going to be transformative.”

Months later, a large Chinese firm approached ODG with an offer north of the company’s $258 million Series A valuation, a source tells TechCrunch. Talks fell through, but ODG’s leadership was at their most ambitious and felt like they couldn’t be stopped.

At the same time, following the CES 2017 product unveil, some employees wondered whether having three distinct product lines under development aimed at roughly the same customer was the right direction for the company with around 100 employees. Ralph Osterhout’s strong internal popularity kept these concerns at bay even as the company faced double-digit return rates from customers of its current-generation R-7 glasses due to manufacturing issues.

“That’s a little bit the story of ODG and Ralph, in general: everything is a prototype, nothing is finished, and before one thing is 60 percent done, you’re already onto the next one,” a former employee tells TechCrunch. “I think the heart of ODG’s downfall was its lack of focus.”

The company never ended up shipping the R-9 or the R-8 or even fulfilling all of its R-7 orders. It blew through its funding before the fall of 2017, and it wasn’t long before employees were on half-pay and soon stopped getting paid at all. ODG sought backing from Chinese firms, but sources say that a negative trade environment hampered those efforts. In 2018, it received an $8 million loan from a Chinese firm used to pay back employees as Osterhout began trying to scrounge together an exit strategy, seeking buyers for the company that bore his name.

Suitors for the company included Magic Leap, Facebook, Razer and Lenovo, sources tell TechCrunch. In each case talks fell through, as Osterhout was convinced that his company was being undervalued by the prospective acquirers.

ODG’s San Francisco offices in 2016

Sources say that Magic Leap continued to bump up its offer, eventually signing a letter of intent in the final months of 2018 to purchase the startup. The final proposed purchase price ended up at $35 million, still a far cry from its 2016 valuation, a source familiar with the deal tells TechCrunch.

This offer came with stipulations for the types of engineers Magic Leap wanted to bring aboard, leading ODG to shrink its staff to just a couple dozen employees. As the startup whittled itself down to prepare for a disappointing, yet relatively dignified, sign-off, Magic Leap began to grow cagey about finalizing the acquisition, sources say. As the deal started to fall through, some in ODG’s leadership began to wonder aloud whether Magic Leap was “acting in poor faith” and was only looking to starve the company before purchasing assets at a discount in a patent sale.

“Ralph turned around and he didn’t have a company or team anymore, and then Magic Leap goes, you know what, we’re just going to buy the IP, we don’t want the company, you don’t have a company anymore,” one source said.

Magic Leap did not respond to a request for comment.

With the deal shot and the indebted company in shambles, the team dwindled down further to a skeleton crew — essentially a deals team — as company assets were put up for sale by IP advisory firm Hilco Streambank. The company’s patent portfolio up for sale next week includes 107 issued patents and 83 pending applications.

The 20-year-old company has already seen its early work in foundational AR patents pay off. In 2014, Microsoft paid around $150 million to acquire a trove of ODG patents after deciding not to buy the company outright. In documents reviewed by TechCrunch, ODG highlights a number of AR patents in its collection on which it believes existing products from companies like Magic Leap, Google and Facebook infringe, specifically pointing to diagrams of systems like the Magic Leap One and Oculus Quest that they claim conflict with its prior art.

With a patent sale (spotted first by UploadVR), ODG’s leadership is looking to recoup enough to pay back the company’s debts, as well as the employees who worked for months on partial salaries.

Whether or not ODG’s downfall was largely a cause of mismanagement, the disparity between acquisition offers and its 2016 valuation showcases a broader cooldown in the augmented reality industry, as capital-intensive efforts in enterprise and hardware have proven to be a more difficult sell for investors heading into 2019.

Last month, Blippar, an enterprise-focused AR startup that raised more than $130 million, collapsed after failing to secure an emergency influx of cash. Just yesterday, it was reported that Meta, an AR hardware startup with $73 million in funding from Y Combinator, Tencent and Comcast, had fallen into insolvency. Magic Leap itself has had issues breaking into broader markets: In November the startup lost out to Microsoft on a $480 million military contract.

Asked whether they would pin the company’s failures on the broader industry slowdown, a former employee said, “From an internal standpoint, all I saw was, we are fucking it up.”

Ralph Osterhout did not respond to a request for comment.

Magic Leap and other AR startups have a rough 2019 ahead of them

Very rarely does an early technology garner such an air of inevitability like AR has in the past few years.

2018 was supposed to be a year where the foundational tech for augmented reality was built out a bit and the industry took a couple big leaps. Things started off well-enough but momentum really doesn’t seem be on the side of some of the industry’s heaviest hitters heading into 2019, suggesting that life for earlier stage startups may not be much easier.

There are plenty of reasons to be long-term bullish on AR, but the time horizons some have espoused seems to be bogus and pitch decks organized around a near-term spike in phone-based or glasses-based users are going to have a tougher time being taken seriously in 2019.

The ghost with the most

For all of the AR advances made this year, the company most emblematic story of AR’s numerous challenges was clearly Magic Leap .

The company spent the past few years trashing industry standards and lauding their own approaches with braggadocio but ended up releasing a product that largely iterated on its competitors. With the release of their “developer kit” this year, a product that clearly seems to have stopped being a first-gen product only when the reality of the climate availed itself, the startup seems to be finding that optics and infra progress is going to come more slowly than foretold.

I’ve talked to more than a few people who think Magic Leap hindered progress in the AR industry by siphoning investor attention and discouraging other hardware startups from joining the fray in the face of a billions-backed unknown. But in 2019, there are fewer available plays for the funding juggernaut. They spent years trying to distinguish themselves from the corporate mission of Microsoft and their HoloLens headset, now it seems they’ve begun to see that the only hopes of justifying their sitting valuation in the next few years is enlisting support from the big customers that MSFT is chasing, as opposed to single-handedly birthing a consumer market. Magic Leap recently lost a bid to Microsoft for a $480 million military contract to outfit troops with AR headsets, and as Microsoft prepares to release a second-generation HoloLens with the enterprise in full concentration, it seems like Magic Leap is going to reshuffle its deck.

Dead-on-arrival content plays

Magic Leap’s struggles are well-documented but what plagues the overall AR industry seems less discussed.

The consumer appetite for phone-based AR content is obviously lacking. Even Apple’s reality distortion field isn’t enough to convince people that its ARKit releases have led to anything other than some weird experimentation for iOS users. Few Android OEMs are boasting about compatibility with Google’s ARCore platform anymore, suggesting that approachable hardware standards for device makers wasn’t all that was missing from the failed Tango brand.

The most apparent mobile AR opportunities are probably in user-generated content, but there seems to be a disconnect between platforms and users in terms of how complex these AR experiences can and should become. At this point, selfie masks still seem to be at the edge of users’ comfort levels, leaving a lot of solved tech problems stuck in limbo waiting for a problem that makes them worthwhile.

Niantic is probably one of the most revenue-heavy startup dabbling in phone AR, even if it is a bit of a false idol for the industry. Nobody seems to think of Niantic as a capital-A augmented reality startup, but it’s clear that team behind Pokémon Go sees the technology as a not-fully-tapped reservoir of potential for future gaming experiences that feel more social and more immersive than any mobile RPG that’s sucking up the majority of your playtime today. The company’s new Harry Potter title still doesn’t have a release date, we haven’t seen any gameplay, but we do know that AR plays a part in the title in some capacity. We’ll see if they figure out things the rest of the industry hasn’t.

Platform tech opportunities

Part of this broader content pain is the fact that some known platform fundamentals are still getting tackled. In 2018, the startups in the AR that were raising the most buzz were so-called “AR cloud” startups, teams that were largely focused on solving more fundamental back-end problems around localization and mapping. It turns out “simple” problems like getting a bunch of users in a single session or keeping tracking of objects you’ve moved around between sessions are actually incredibly complex.

A big issue is that AR fundamentally relies on a level of spatial understanding that goes far beyond grasping geometry. For all the ground that has been traversed by computer vision researchers this year, issues like segmenting environments by objects and accurately identifying them are still in the earliest stages. When you think of AR tech as a subset of vision problems, you realize that products today are being approached in a kind of bizarre manner.

Google has been making worthwhile movements in proliferating their Lens computer vision engine across new apps and devices. In a very round about way the company seems to have come to the worthwhile perspective that mapping an environment spatially doesn’t really help you that much if you can’t parse the contextual nuances of what the camera is actually looking at as well.

A lot of the AR startups in this space have raised some cash on the backs of the smartphone AR trend and the hundreds of millions of potential users, but it still seems pretty dubious whether this market has legs. Fortunately, most of these solutions have wide applicability across future industries like robotics and autonomous vehicles as well, helping computers interface with the real world through visual and geographic cues, but their utility might not be as ripe as they’d hope.

This is an area where Magic Leap could be poised to find some relatively near-term success. The startup’s top brass spent a hefty amount of time at their developer conference talking about the “Magicverse,” basically their vision for bringing localized AR layers onto geographic spaces where users with Magic Leap glasses could observe the content. Without having taken a peek at the tech they’re working with, their biggest advantage seems to rely on their partnership with AT&T which is poised to start working more seriously with 5G in 2019.

The backend still remains a much more exciting market than hardware in 2019, but there may still be some interesting movement with devices this year. I don’t trust most of the predictive data that exists surrounding headset sales so I’m not even going to reference it but suffice to say that AR headset sales aren’t going to explode anytime soon.

North Focals

More conservative AR hardware

One trend that I am curious to see shake out is the more simplistic version of AR where the glasses basically just offer users a heads-up display for notifications and lightweight apps.

Companies like North and Vuzix have been talking a lot about their work here. Apple’s rumored AR glasses have been talked about for ages at this point, with 2020/2021 seeming to be the rumor mill sweet spot for a release timeframe and if that’s the case I’d bet it falls more into this design ethos than a HoloLens type device. The hardware just isn’t small enough yet but it is getting close and there could be some interesting early ground that the industry could gain by moving in more heavily on traditional wearable use cases though high component costs will be an early limiter as well.

This is probably a hardware space Snap has their eyes on; Spectacles jogged a lot of the current thinking on glasses-type wearables, but at this point, the company needs something that has wide appeal and can feed users back into its own app. The company isn’t in a position to hock something with razor-thin or non-existent margins and it doesn’t gain that much from a product that sells a few thousand units in terms of building its platform.

Bottom line

For the Facebooks and Apples of the world, immediate market conditions and user interest obviously hold a different weight. US investment firms with good track records spent a lot of time this year rejiggering their expectations for their first waves of investments. For the more ambitious privately-held AR startups of the world, there’s probably going to be an issue with raising capital this year as a lot of the top hardware companies have been seeking more free-flowing late stage cash from Chinese firms which have been growing harder to pin down as the trade climate worsens.  This is going to be a problem for hardware companies especially.

For the most part, the BS is going to continue to get easier to parse this year.

Platform plays are going to have to dial in their their target audience a bit more than “everyone with an AR-enabled phone”; more realistic expectations are something the industry should benefit from. ARKit and ARCore are going to level-up and game engine-makers are going to get better solutions for AR content creators. Backend vision challenges are going to get solved and enable things like more seamless multi-player, but there are plenty of reasons why these tech problem solutions won’t lead to big changes in user behavior. Users failing to take off in the second year of some of these big platforms probably won’t dissuade Apple, but it definitely will dissuade some investors from continuing to bet big on the near-term future of mobile AR.

What to expect from CES 2019

The timing is… less than ideal. Just as the industry is recovering from a holiday-induced hangover, we’re thrust into the country’s largest consumer electronics show. The timing, of course, is not coincidental. The show is intended to offer a preview for the tech year to come.

Many companies thrive on CES’s pace. It’s a five-day deluge of tech news, and, for many, it’s the largest platform they’ll get all year. The show is fairly unique in its ability to juggle announcements from all sizes of companies, from Samsung to startup, all vying for a little mindshare.

In recent years, its focus has shifted. Many larger companies have opted to make announcements on their own stages — and their own terms. CES, meanwhile, has changed accordingly, offering smaller companies a platform through showcases like Eureka Park, while making automotive and transportation a more essential plank of the show.

We’re about a week out from CES really kicking off in earnest, so it’s time to take a look at some of the trends that are beginning to emerge in the lead-up to the big show.

5G beyond the phone

5g illustration taken during the inauguration of the Media group Altice' s Campus in Paris on October 9, 2018.

5G illustration, taken during the inauguration of the Media group Altice’ s Campus in Paris on October 9, 2018. (Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)

The big tech story of the year will no doubt also be the centerpiece of CES. The major U.S. carriers have already committed to rolling out 5G in 2019, so the show marks a perfect opportunity for hardware companies to get in on the action, as well.

Expect to see a lot of news out of component makers on this front, Intel especially. Qualcomm mostly showcased its 2019 offerings at its summit earlier this month, but the company will no doubt drill down on specifics, including the ways in which next-gen wireless will push IoT, automotive and other devices beyond the smartphone (more on that below).

In fact, I anticipate that’s going to be the big story here: 5G’s role beyond mobile. The big carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — are intent on demonstrating how the faster technology will keep us gulp more connected than ever. That’s going to apply to everything from enterprise products to health-monitoring wearables and smart home devices.

It’s a future where everything is always-on — and tapped directly into your bank account.

AR/VR

Barring any unforeseen trends, VR’s going to mostly have to sit this one out. We’ll likely see a trend toward cheaper, standalone headsets à la the Oculus Go, but most companies are currently a lot more interested in what augmented reality holds in the short-term.

AR’s immediate future is two-pronged. Most developers are focused on leveraging existing devices like smartphones and tablets, using ARKit/ARCore. But a number of headsets/glasses have already begun to pop up on the periphery. Expect plenty of these to be on display at the show as startups attempt to convince us that it’s an experience we need to bring directly to our collective faces.

Automotive

As noted, automotive/transportation has become an increasingly important presence at CES over the past several years. Car stuff now comprises a full hall and several of the keynotes, as automakers invested more in tech breakthroughs and the consumer electronics side of things.

A number of key trends are already starting to emerge ahead of the event. As in past years, expect to see a focus on on-site demos of EV and self-driving technologies. Augmented reality — including head’s up displays  — will be a big part of the showcase, as will smaller transport products, including delivery robots.

Smart Home

The smart home ruled last year’s show. 5G is expected to take the title in 2019, but connected home products won’t give up without a fight. They’re going to be EVERYWHERE. From door locks to cameras to microwave to wall clocks — if you can name it, there will be a smart version at CES this year.

It’s the one category that practically every company both large and small will have a hand in. That said, two big names with an increased presence are going to drive much of the conversation. Since bringing the Echo and Home to market, CES has become an increasingly important show for both Amazon and Google. Expect Alexa and Assistant on everything at CES.

Smartphones

Much of this has, admittedly, already been detailed in my recent “Top smartphones trends to watch in 2019” post. Of course, what actually gets announced at CES is a different conversation altogether. For one thing, more companies are opting to make big announcements at their own events. For another, Mobile World Congress is just over a month away, and it’s been known to take plenty of smartphone wind out of CES’s sails.

That said, I’d expect to see a handful of 5G handsets on display at the show. And while CES 2019 probably won’t be a watershed moment for the future of foldable smartphones, we’re going to get a closer look at the final version of Royole’s handset. I would also anticipate seeing plenty of foldable concepts hinted at, even as the final product will still be a ways away.

2018 was the toughest year for smartphones in recent memory. As such, a lot of companies are feeling the pressure to do some soul-searching and go back to the drawing board. If nothing else, at least we’ll get some interesting concepts out of the deal.

TVs

Another year, another K. This year, 8K will very much be the thing. It’s like 4K, but with more Ks. Is it a gimmick? Kind of. Is it cool? Sure. Mostly, however, it’s the latest reason to get you to upgrade that three-year-old TV that cost you three months’ rent.

Companies have been showing off 8K sets for half a decade now. This is the year manufacturers will really get serious about the technology — though the same probably can’t be said for content.

Niantic reportedly raising $200M at $3.9B valuation

Pokémon Go creator Niantic is raising a $200 million Series C at a valuation of $3.9 billion according to a report from Katie Roof at the WSJ. The round is expected to be led by IVP with participation from Samsung and aXiomatic Gaming.

The upcoming raise would bring the company’s total funding to $425 million according to Crunchbase. Niantic’s last round was raised at a $3 billion valuation.

TechCrunch has reached out to Niantic for comment.

The gaming startup which has invested significantly in augmented reality technologies is also behind titles such as its recently updated Ingress title and an upcoming Harry Potter mobile game. The company was founded as a startup within Google in 2010 and was spun out as its own entity in 2015, releasing its hit title Pokémon Go the next year.

The company is currently working on its next big augmented reality mobile title Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, aiming to create a proper follow-up hit that can capture the excitement of its Pokémon title. The app’s success will likely be crucial to perceptions that Pokémon Go was more than a fluke breakout success. A release date has not yet been set for the title.

Enterprise AR is an opportunity to “do well by doing good”, says General Catalyst

A founder-investor panel on augmented reality (AR) technology here at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin suggests growth hopes for the space have regrouped around enterprise use-cases, after the VR consumer hype cycle landed with yet another flop in the proverbial ‘trough of disillusionment’.

Matt Miesnieks, CEO of mobile AR startup 6d.ai, conceded the space has generally been on another downer but argued it’s coming out of its third hype cycle now with fresh b2b opportunities on the horizon.

6d.ai investor General Catalyst‘s Niko Bonatsos was also on stage, and both suggested the challenge for AR startups is figuring out how to build for enterprises so the b2b market can carry the mixed reality torch forward.

“From my point of view the fact that Apple, Google, Microsoft, have made such big commitments to the space is very reassuring over the long term,” said Miesnieks. “Similar to the smartphone industry ten years ago we’re just gradually seeing all the different pieces come together. And as those pieces mature we’ll eventually, over the next few years, see it sort of coalesce into an iPhone moment.”

“I’m still really positive,” he continued. “I don’t think anyone should be looking for some sort of big consumer hit product yet but in verticals in enterprise, and in some of the core tech enablers, some of the tool spaces, there’s really big opportunities there.”

Investors shot the arrow over the target where consumer VR/AR is concerned because they’d underestimated how challenging the content piece is, Bonatsos suggested.

“I think what we got wrong is probably the belief that we thought more indie developers would have come into the space and that by now we would probably have, I don’t know, another ten Pokémon-type consumer massive hit applications. This is not happening yet,” he said.

“I thought we’d have a few more games because games always lead the adoption to new technology platforms. But in the enterprise this is very, very exciting.”

“For sure also it’s clear that in order to have the iPhone moment we probably need to have much better hardware capabilities,” he added, suggesting everyone is looking to the likes of Apple to drive that forward in the future. On the plus side he said current sentiment is “much, much much better than what it was a year ago”.

Discussing potential b2b applications for AR tech one idea Miesnieks suggested is for transportation platforms that want to link a rider to the location of an on-demand and/or autonomous vehicle.

Another area of opportunity he sees is working with hardware companies — to add spacial awareness to devices such as smartphones and drones to expand their capabilities.

More generally they mentioned training for technical teams, field sales and collaborative use-cases as areas with strong potential.

“There are interesting applications in pharma, oil & gas where, with the aid of the technology, you can do very detailed stuff that you couldn’t do before because… you can follow everything on your screen and you can use your hands to do whatever it is you need to be doing,” said Bonatsos. “So that’s really, really exciting.

“These are some of the applications that I’ve seen. But it’s early days. I haven’t seen a lot of products in the space. It’s more like there’s one dev shop is working with the chief innovation officer of one specific company that is much more forward thinking and they want to come up with a really early demo.

“Now we’re seeing some early stage tech startups that are trying to attack these problems. The good news is that good dollars is being invested in trying to solve some of these problems — and whoever figures out how to get dollars from the… bigger companies, these are real enterprise businesses to be built. So I’m very excited about that.”

At the same time, the panel delved into some of the complexities and social challenges facing technologists as they try to integrate blended reality into, well, the real deal.

Including raising the spectre of Black Mirror style dystopia once smartphones can recognize and track moving objects in a scene — and 6d.ai’s tech shows that’s coming.

Miesnieks showed a brief video demo of 3D technology running live on a smartphone that’s able to identify cars and people moving through the scene in real time.

“Our team were able to solve this problem probably a year ahead of where the rest of the world is at. And it’s exciting. If we showed this to anyone who really knows 3D they’d literally jump out of the chair. But… it opens up all of these potentially unintended consequences,” he said.

“We’re wrestling with what might this be used for. Sure it’s going to make Pokémon game more fun. It could also let a blind person walk down the street and have awareness of cars and people and they may not need a cane or something.

“But it could let you like tap and literally have people be removed from your field of view and so you only see the type of people that you want to look at. Which can be dystopian.”

He pointed to issues being faced by the broader technology industry now, around social impacts and areas like privacy, adding: “We’re seeing some of the social impacts of how this stuff can go wrong, even if you assume good intentions.

“These sort of breakthroughs that we’re having are definitely causing us to be aware of the responsibility we have to think a bit more deeply about how this might be used for the things we didn’t expect.”

From the investor point of view Bonatsos said his thesis for enterprise AR has to be similarly sensitive to the world around the tech.

“It’s more about can we find the domain experts, people like Matt, that are going to do well by doing good. Because there are a tonne of different parameters to think about here and have the credibility in the market to make it happen,” he suggested, noting: “It‘s much more like traditional enterprise investing.”

“This is a great opportunity to use this new technology to do well by doing good,” Bonatsos continued. “So the responsibility is here from day one to think about privacy, to think about all the fake stuff that we could empower, what do we want to do, what do we want to limit? As well as, as we’re creating this massive, augmented reality, 3D version of the world — like who is going to own it, and share all this wealth? How do we make sure that there’s going to be a whole new ecosystem that everybody can take part of it. It’s very interesting stuff to think about.”

“Even if we do exactly what we think is right, and we assume that we have good intentions, it’s a big grey area in lots of ways and we’re going to make lots of mistakes,” conceded Miesnieks, after discussing some of the steps 6d.ai has taken to try to reduce privacy risks around its technology — such as local processing coupled with anonymizing/obfuscating any data that is taken off the phone.

“When [mistakes] happen — not if, when — all that we’re going to be able to rely on is our values as a company and the trust that we’ve built with the community by saying these are our values and then actually living up to them. So people can trust us to live up to those values. And that whole domain of startups figuring out values, communicating values and looking at this sort of abstract ‘soft’ layer — I think startups as an industry have done a really bad job of that.

“Even big companies. There’d only a handful that you could say… are pretty clear on their values. But for AR and this emerging tech domain it’s going to be, ultimately, the core that people trust us.”

Bonatsos also pointed to rising political risk as a major headwind for startups in this space — noting how China’s government has decided to regulate the gaming market because of social impacts.

“That’s unbelievable. This is where we’re heading with the technology world right now. Because we’ve truly made it. We’ve become mainstream. We’re the incumbents. Anything we build has huge, huge intended and unintended consequences,” he said.

“Having a government that regulates how many games that can be built or how many games can be released — like that’s incredible. No company had to think of that before as a risk. But when people are spending so many hours and so much money on the tech products they are using every day. This is the [inevitable] next step.”

Snap launches a certification program for AR shops to craft branded lenses

Snap has announced a partner program intended to make it easier for brands to get on board with — and pay for — its augmented reality “lenses” by helping advertisers find certified AR shops to craft the digital product placements on their behalf.

The move follows the visual messaging platform opening up lenses, almost a year ago, to outside developers — with the launch of a Lens Studio AR developer tool.

Snap’s lenses use a combination of AR and hyper personalization as their selling strategy — by superimposing branded content directly onto users’ faces and/or around their person. This means the advert becomes all but inescapable (at least to the user’s friends) as branded stuff gets mapped onto and/or injected into their personal content where it can piggyback on social sharing to shoot for viral spread.

At launch, Snap says the global Lens Creative Partner Program has more than 30 certified “creators” listed — with the largest number located in the U.S., followed by the U.K., then Canada and Australia. (A similar number of partner shops are also badged as global.)

Snap says additional regions are being launched in a few weeks, and it says it’s expecting to onboard 100+ creators over the next few months.

Snap Lens Creative Partners program AR shop, Social Snack, with content created for Hasbro

“Today we are announcing the launch of a Lens Creative Partners program specific to building AR Lenses for brands. This group of certified creators spans large agencies and expert individuals who have been building engaging and immersive AR Lenses for Snap,” it writes in a blog post announcing the program.

“To be certified, creators had to be experienced in developing quality AR and complete a rigorous course about the development process, creative best practices, ad policies and buy models of sponsored AR Lenses on Snapchat.”

It’s not as instantly arresting as cat lenses, but Snap’s push to expand advertiser interest in paying for the chance to virtually adorn users with branded content — by making it easier to find a tried and tested AR shop to do the work — will probably result in Mr. Tibbles wearing a lot more virtual merch on his head in the future.

So expect plenty more feline indignity in the future.

Snap says that more than one in three of its 186 million daily active users play with AR lenses on the app each day, averaging three minutes each — adding up to a collective 500 years of daily AR play time.

Just think how much quality cat petting time people are missing out on.