Snap is back with a second hardware product, more than five years after releasing Spectacles. And it flies this time.
Snap, indeed, created a drone. The small yellow puck, known as Pixy, takes off from your hand, follows you around, and records video that can be sent back to Snapchat. It’s Snap’s attempt to create a friendlier and more approachable drone than other products on the market — and it could foreshadow the more advanced, AR-powered future Snap is working toward.
Pixy will be available for $230 online in the United States and France beginning Thursday. It’s small and light enough to fit in a pant pocket, unlike most existing drones. There is no controller; it takes off and lands on an outstretched palm, and it uses six pre-programmed flight patterns accessible via a dial on the device’s top.
Why would Snap, which is primarily known for its ephemeral messaging app, create a selfie drone? It’s the very first question I ask CEO Evan Spiegel.
“Because we’re a camera company,” he recently explained via video chat. Snap has used that tagline since 2016, when the company renamed itself Snap and released its first pair of Spectacles. “Our mission is to give people the tools they need to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together.” And this product accomplishes exactly that.”
Spiegel has had an interest in drones since at least 2016, when Snap began experimenting with how the devices could fit into its camera company strategy. Around that time, he was on the verge of acquiring Zero Zero Robotics, a Chinese drone company, but the timing was off. With Facebook aggressively copying its staple Stories feature, investors questioned Snap’s growth prospects as a newly public stock, and the deal eventually fell apart over price. The company is still not profitable on a consistent basis, but Snapchat is now growing much faster than Facebook and has more users than Twitter.
Drones have yet to gain traction outside of professional use cases and early adopters. Most are bulky, noisy, and expensive. Some even necessitate a permit. Pixy’s main goal was to make it approachable, with friendly-sounding propellers and a design that could fit in your pocket. “We finally got to the point where we were like, ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun.'” “I guess we should probably release it,” Spiegel says.
With its swappable battery installed, the Pixy weighs only 101 grams. A full charge, according to Snap, will get you five to eight flights lasting between 10 and 20 seconds — a short flight even by tiny drone standards. Additional batteries are $20, and a portable dual-battery charger is $50. The Pixy’s 12MP sensor can capture up to 100 videos or 1,000 photos, which are all saved locally on a 16GB drive.
The footage is wirelessly synced to Snapchat’s Memories section, edited there (it doesn’t capture audio, so Snap allows you to use songs licensed from music labels), and then shareable directly in the app or elsewhere. Snap has included a few Pixy-specific AR effects to choose from, and I expect more to be added by the company and its creators in the future. An auto-crop feature can quickly convert horizontal footage into Snap’s signature vertical orientation, with the main subject in the center. The video quality isn’t great — it’s not something you’ll want to watch on a big screen — but it’s adequate for viewing on a phone.
The Pixy’s main trick is taking off and landing in your hand, thanks to a bottom-facing camera. Its front-facing camera needs to be roughly at eye level when it takes off, and it then tracks you as you move around. When you’re ready to land, simply extend your hand to the Pixy, and it will return to your palm. During both outdoor and indoor tests, I found this to be the most impressive aspect of using the drone; it simply works and produces a rare “wow” moment the first time it occurs.
Spiegel sees the Pixy as a new way of capturing moments centered on people, which is a narrower perspective than how drones have traditionally been positioned. “I believe Pixy creates a whole new space here because your smartphone cannot fly,” he says. “You can gain a completely new and unique perspective.” As a result, I believe Pixy is significantly superior to what your smartphone can produce.”
The Pixy’s simplicity sets it apart from competing small drones. DJI has been developing small drones that can take off from your hand and automatically follow you around for years; these drones also have longer battery life and higher-quality video. However, these competing models are also more expensive and far more difficult to use. And they’re still a lot bigger than the Pixy.
The Pixy’s design also has some limitations. Because the device is so light, you should avoid using it in windy conditions. Snap also warns against flying it over water or other shiny, reflective surfaces, which could confuse its bottom camera, which automates flight.
Snap does not expect to make a lot of money from the Pixy. According to Spiegel, “the goal is really just to get it in people’s hands and have them play around with it.” “And if people like the original product, we might make more with version two.” According to him, Snap may have set too low expectations for version one. “In retrospect, we probably should have made more.” And now, with all of the supply chain issues, it’s just difficult. We just didn’t think it would be this good.”
Prior to the release of Spectacles, I noticed Snap advertising job openings with the tagline, “Toys are preludes to serious ideas.”
That phrase, coined by famed design duo Charles and Ray Eames, has since proven to be emblematic of how Snap operates. What began as a sexting app a decade ago now has over 330 million daily users, including 75% of 13–34 year olds in over 20 countries. Every day, over 250 million of those users interact with AR effects or Lenses. Those Lenses began by allowing users to vomit rainbows and wear dog ears. They can now solve math equations and allow you to try on clothes.
Spectacles were never a commercial success, and Snap overestimated their demand at first, but they are now full-fledged AR glasses that many technologists, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, believe will usher in the next major wave of computing. Despite having far less money than Meta or Apple, Snap is the first in its peer group to have untethered, functional AR glasses as well as a burgeoning ecosystem of hundreds of developers creating Lenses for them.
Spiegel sees Snap’s hardware efforts as an opportunity to push the limits of what a camera can be. He concentrates on the camera because that is how people express themselves on mobile phones. “When we look at our hardware approach, it’s really just about extending the core of what people do and love about Snapchat,” he says. “The hands-free nature of Spectacles was one of the things that really changed our perspective on cameras because people made totally different stuff.” Naturally, a flying camera expands on that concept.
If Spectacles are any indication, Spiegel most likely has multiple Pixy generations in the works. He sees hardware development as a long-term commitment, particularly in the case of AR glasses, which he doesn’t see becoming mainstream for several years. “It’s something we wanted to steadily improve at over time because it’s very important to the long term of our business,” he says. “At the same time, there are a lot of technical constraints that exist today that means that AR glasses will be difficult to scale in the near term.” As a result, I don’t believe it would be prudent for us to try to push scale for a product that isn’t yet ready.”
Spiegel believes that Pixy will be a bigger hit in the short term than Spectacles. “It just becomes very clear after a couple of versions of camera glasses that the market for camera glasses is actually very small and constrained to people who want that first-person POV,” he says. “I believe the market for Pixy is larger.”
Before we start talking, I have a theory that Pixy, like the first version of Spectacles, is a Trojan horse for a bigger idea. Drones are already being used to create 3D maps, which could be used to create more realistic Lenses that are grounded in reality. Snap recently acquired NextMind, a French startup that created a headband for controlling computers with your thoughts. Is there a future in which I wear AR Spectacles and use my mind to control a paired Pixy?
When I ask Spiegel about it all, he chuckles, indicating that’s all I’m going to get from him on the record. For the time being, the Pixy is merely a toy.