More than five years after it released Spectacles, Snap is back with a second hardware product. And this time it flies.
Yes, Snap made a drone. Called Pixy, the small yellow puck takes off from your hand, follows you around, and captures video that can be sent back to Snapchat. It’s Snap’s attempt at making a drone that’s friendlier and more approachable than other products on the market-and it may hint at the more advanced, AR-powered future Snap is building toward.
Pixy is available online for $ 230 in the US and France starting Thursday. Unlike most existing drones, it’s small and light enough to fit in a pant pocket. There isn’t a controller; it takes off from and lands on an outstretched palm, and it uses six pre-programmed flight patterns that are accessible through a dial on the top of the device.
Why on earth would Snap, which primarily operates an ephemeral messaging app, make a selfie drone? It’s the first question I pose to CEO Evan Spiegel.
“Because we’re a camera company,” he tells me recently over video chat. Snap has brandished that tagline since 2016 when the company changed its name from Snapchat to Snap and released its first pair of Spectacles. “Our mission is to empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together. And this product does exactly that. ”
Spiegel has been interested in drones for years, dating back to at least 2016, when Snap started tinkering with how the devices could fit into its camera company strategy. He almost acquired a Chinese drone company called Zero Zero Robotics around then, but the timing was off. With Facebook aggressively copying its staple Stories feature, investors were doubting Snap’s growth prospects as a newly public stock, and the deal ultimately fell apart over price. The company still isn’t consistently profitable, but Snapchat is now growing much faster than Facebook and already has more users than Twitter.
So far, drones haven’t caught on beyond professional use cases and early adopters. Most are heavy, loud, and expensive. Some even require a permit. A key focus for Pixy was making it approachable with friendly-sounding propellers and a design that could fit into your pocket. “We finally got to a place where we were like,‘ Wow, this is super fun. I guess we should probably release it, ‘”says Spiegel.
The Pixy weighs just 101 grams with its swappable battery inserted. Snap says a full charge will get you five to eight flights, which can range from roughly 10 to 20 seconds – a short flight even by tiny drone standards. Additional batteries cost $ 20, and Snap sells a portable dual-battery charger for $ 50. The Pixy’s 12MP sensor shoots up to 100 videos or 1,000 photos, all of which are stored locally on a 16GB drive.
The footage is synced wirelessly to the Memories section of Snapchat, edited there (it doesn’t capture audio, so Snap lets you use songs it has licensed from music labels), and is then shareable directly in the app or elsewhere. Snap has included a few Pixy-specific AR effects to choose from, and I’d expect more to be added over time from the company and its creators. An auto-crop feature can quickly turn the horizontal footage into Snap’s staple vertical orientation, centered on the main subject. The video quality isn’t amazing – it’s not something you’re going to want to display on a large screen – but it’s fine enough for viewing on a phone.
Thanks to a bottom-facing camera, the Pixy’s main trick is taking off and landing in your hand. Its front-facing camera needs to be lined up roughly at eye level as it takes off, and then it automatically tracks you as you move around. When you’re ready to end the flight, simply outstretch your hand to the Pixy, and it returns to your palm. During both outdoor and indoor tests, I found this to be the most impressive part of using the drone; it just works and induces a rare “wow” moment the first time it happens.
Spiegel sees the Pixy as a new way of capturing moments centered on people, which is a more narrow view than how drones have been traditionally positioned. “I think Pixy opens up a whole new space here because your smartphone can’t fly,” he says. “You can get a totally new and different perspective. And so in that way, I think Pixy is meaningfully better than what your smartphone can create. ”
The Pixy stands apart from competing small drones with its simplicity. DJI has for years been building small drones that can take off from your hand and automatically follow you around; those drones feature longer battery life and higher-quality video, too. But these competing models are also more expensive and much more complicated to use. And they’re still much larger than the pocketable Pixy.
There are some other limitations to the Pixy’s design. Since the device is so light, you won’t want to use it in windy conditions. Snap also advises against using it over water and other shiny, reflective surfaces that could confuse its bottom camera that automates flying.
Snap isn’t planning to make a lot of money from the Pixy. “The goal is really just to get it in peoples’ hands and have them play around with it,” according to Spiegel. “And maybe we would make more with version two if people love the original product.” If anything, Snap may have set its own expectations for version one too low, he says. “Honestly, in hindsight, we probably should have made more. And now it’s just difficult with all the supply chain stuff going on. We just didn’t expect it to be this good. ”
Back in 2016, before Spectacles dropped, I noticed that Snap was advertising job openings with the tagline, “Toys are preludes to serious ideas.”
First coined by the famed design duo Charles and Ray Eames, that phrase has since proven to be emblematic of how Snap operates. What started as primarily a sexting app a decade ago now has more than 330 million daily users, including 75 percent of 13–34 year olds in over 20 countries. Over 250 million of those users engage with AR effects, or Lenses, every day. Those Lenses started by letting people vomit rainbows and wear dog ears. Now, they can solve math equations and let you try on clothes.
Spectacles have never been a commercial success, and Snap overestimated the demand for them initially, but now they are full-fledged AR glasses that represent what many technologists, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, believe will be the next major wave of computing. Despite having far less money than Meta or Apple, Snap is the first in its peer set with untethered, functioning AR glasses and a burgeoning ecosystem of hundreds of developers making Lenses for them.
Spiegel sees Snap’s hardware efforts as a way to push the boundaries of what a camera can be. He focuses on the camera because it’s how people are already expressing themselves on mobile phones. “When we look at our approach to hardware, it’s really just about extending the core of what people are doing and love about Snapchat,” he says. “One of the things that really changed our perspective on cameras was the hands-free nature of Spectacles, because people made totally different stuff.” A camera that flies, naturally, expands on that idea.
If Spectacles are any indication, Spiegel likely has multiple future generations of Pixy up his sleeve. He sees building hardware as a long-term commitment, especially on the AR glasses side-though he doesn’t see those becoming mainstream for years. “It’s something we wanted to just steadily get better at over time because it is very important to the long term of our business,” he tells me. “At the same time, there’s a lot of technical constraints that exist today that mean that it will be hard for AR glasses to reach scale in the near term. And so I don’t think that the prudent approach for us would be to try to push scale for a product that isn’t ready yet. ”
Ultimately, Pixy may prove to be more of a hit in the near term than Spectacles, Spiegel thinks. “After a couple versions of camera glasses, it just becomes very clear that the market for camera glasses is actually very small and constrained to people who want that first person POV,” he says. “I think the market for Pixy is bigger.”
Going into our conversation, I have a theory that, like the first version of Spectacles, Pixy is a Trojan horse for a bigger idea. Drones are already being used to create 3D maps, which would be useful for building more realistic Lenses that are grounded in the real world. Snap recently bought a French startup called NextMind that made a headband for controlling computers with your thoughts. Is a future coming in which I’m wearing AR Spectacles and controlling a paired Pixy with my mind?
When I ask Spiegel about all this, he chuckles, indicating that is the most I’m getting from him on the record. The Pixy is just a toy, at least for now.