Want to empower AR, self-expression among Indian creators via Lens Studio: Snap Inc's Eitan Pilipski

On the eve of the Landmarkers feature launch in India, we spoke to Snap's VP of camera platform Eitan Pilipski about the upcoming features on Snapchat, Lens Studio 2.1 and more


Snap Inc, the parent company of Snapchat, is investing heavily in India.

After opening its first-ever office in India in Mumbai earlier this month, Snap Inc is also bringing one of its premier augmented reality features, Landmarkers, to India. From 27 August, if you are in Agra or Mumbai, you can make the Taj Mahal or the Gateway of India come to life through Snapchat's Landmarker feature.

According to Statista, Snapchat boasts of 203 mn daily active users, which is less than half of the daily active users on Instagram Stories. Instagram copied the Story format, which was introduced by Snapchat years ago, and improved on it to such an extent that the Stories platform is driving user growth on Instagram. Snapchat's growth, which was unstoppable till Q2 2016, just sort of slowed down after that. But ever since the company started focussing on its Android app, things have started to look up.

On its India office launch day, Snap's chief strategy officer Jared Grusd said that India has seen a 40 percent daily active user increase from Q2 2018 to Q2 2019. Given the immense popularity of Android in India, and access to cheap data plans this isn't a total surprise.

Snapchat is the first platform which made augmented reality filters or AR Lenses an everyday thing. Earlier this year, Snap had its first-ever Partner Summit in Los Angeles, which gave a much-needed boost to the AR feature-set on Snapchat, leading to the formation of the Lens Studio 2.0. Snap also had a Creator's Summit in Mumbai in July this year.

All of these innovations are happening thanks to Snap's camera-as-a-platform approach. Unlike other social media platforms where the 'feed' is of importance, Snapchat focusses on the camera, the ephemerality of the messages, and a unique story-telling format for publications.

Driving innovations on the camera front is Eitan Pilipski, Snap's VP of Camera Platform. On the eve of the Landmarkers feature launch in India, we spoke to Pilipski about the upcoming features on Snapchat, Lens Studio 2.1 and how Snapchat expects to attract more creators.

Edited excerpts from the interaction follow. 

Want to empower AR, self-expression among Indian creators via Lens Studio: Snap Incs Eitan Pilipski

Eitan Pilipski, VP of Camera Platform, Snap Inc. Image: Snap Inc

Tech2: Could you tell us about your role at Snap Inc?

Eitan Pilipski (EP): I lead the camera platform at Snap Inc. The camera platform is the group that is responsible for building the technology and the products that are powering the Snap Augmented Reality vision and roadmaps. What this means is building a product in which the Snapchatter community is engaging in. Lenses are an example of that product. At the same time, we are also building the platform where we are taking all these technologies and bundling them into a collection of features and capabilities. One form of that is Lens Studio, which is allowing anyone in the world to have the ability to create and share experiences in the simplest way with our community.

Tech2: What are the new changes that are coming to Snapchat?

EP: We are building a new version of the Lens Studio – Lens Studio 2.1. In our camera as a platform, we took a deliberate decision to take its AR capabilities and to open them to the public ecosystem. We wanted to make it accessible to anyone who is creative. The growing community around these features is really validating that decision. After we started Lens Studio in December 2017, we started investing in programs that are allowing us to learn a lot from our community. But we are also working with our community to take our roadmap forward. One of the programs we have launched is called Official Lens Creator, in which we are working closely with professionals and creators. We are inviting them to Snap, we are learning a lot from them, we are also connecting them with brands and so on. In India, we have many Lens creators, but there are three that we have been working with closely.

Akash Rajendra: Akash is a self-taught programmer, designer and tech enthusiast. He loves programming, designing and AR and is a sophomore student.
Jagmeet SinghJagmeet is a medical student by day and Lens creator by night, creating on average one Lens per day along with his studies.
Hardik ShahHardik is an artist and a creator who is passionate about Augmented Reality. He created a popular Lens for Independence Day.

With the release of Lens Studio 2.1, we are continuing to expand the capabilities of our platforms and our ecosystem. For instance, with Lens Studio 2.1 we are getting on more Landmarkers on board. We are going to enable any creator to create an experience with landmarks such as the Taj Mahal (Agra) and the Gateway of India (Mumbai) and I am really excited about that. This is a great way to engage and expand their capabilities. We are also going to reveal new types of capabilities around Face Lenses, new ways to create experiences around humans, and bring in our community.

Some of the new templates to be launched today include a Face in Video, Portrait Particles, Countdown, Skeletal, Hair colour and Make-up.

Tech2: Is there any criteria that needs to be met before submitting creator AR lenses on the platform? Or anyone can send in their creation for public use? Are these lenses vetted by the Snapchat community or by Snap itself to ensure it is controversy-free?

EP: We have a set of criteria as to what it takes to be an official Lens creator before it shows up on our app. The details are there on our portal. We have a Lens Creator program, a community manager, and we take it very seriously. But what we are really looking for is examples of individuals who are inspiring us. They are doing work that shows us a path, where we can empower creation and self-expression. Snapchat is all about self-expression as it is a camera-first platform. AR is such a powerful technology and Lenses are a powerful product to help our community to be curious, to learn and interact. 

Regardless of who makes the lenses, whether it's an individual or a creator or even a Snap employee, we take the vetting process very seriously. We monitor the published lenses and if they are flagged or if they're infringing on anyone’s copyright, we will take it down. We are enforcing these quality checks to ensure that no one is violating our policy. 

Tech2: Currently, a lot of the Landmarkers are important structures, so do you need to get regulatory permissions from the authorities in these countries?

EP: Let me first explain to you how it is possible for us to even enable these Landmarkers. Since our community engages with the camera, we are really fortunate to have that network effect. There is a mechanism with which our community can opt-in and share what we call, ‘Public Stories’. These are public stories that are submitted to our Stories, and you can add your story to a related public story from your location. (Sometimes these stories are in the vicinity of landmarks). These stories are allowing us to use the images to reconstruct in order to build those Landmarkers. In public stories, sometimes we get more than enough images to create a point cloud which is a digital representation of the landmark. Using Lens Studio, you can then crop the experience around that landmark.

We are also very careful about the type of Landmarkers we are activating. We are working very closely with our privacy team, comms and marketing team and our legal team so that we are adding Landmarkers that enhances creativity within our community. We also take into account the sensitivities of the locations. So far, everything has been pretty smooth. But if we think anything is being considered offensive, we will take appropriate action. 

Snapchat Landmarker lens.

Snapchat Landmarker lens.

Tech2: But do you have to get permissions from authorities to prevent any legal hassles? A rainbow-spewing Eiffel Tower may not be to everyone's liking, for example. Certain monuments have sentimental value, for instance. Some tourism boards may not want a particular AR effect or lens to go out in the public domain. How do you get around these issues?

EP: For Snapchat, to operate in any region, we are 100 percent compliant with all the guidelines and regulations of those countries. We are already trying to conform to any rules that are mandated by the governing region where we operate and that applies to India as well. This applies to the Landmarkers features as well.

Tech2: With the Lens Studio, do you only work with creators hand-picked by Snap Inc? Or are there more people who do this as a hobby?

EP: There are more people in India who are engaging with the Lens Studio. We see India as a huge opportunity. We actually have a partnership with some high schools here to launch a program where students can use Lens Studio and Snapchat as a platform. We have also partnered with the Indian School of Design (ISDI), which is one of the top design schools in India. So we see a lot of opportunity and new ways to learn to build a community. We want to highlight the unique features of our platform to showcase the diversity of India. 

Lens Studio 2.1

Lens Studio 2.1

Tech2: How is Snap planning to monetise the Lens platform? For instance, any partnership with Bollywood movies or major events that have been activated on the platform?

EP: There is a collection of things we are doing and augmented reality is very important for us. We have a local team on the ground who is responsible for the right content partnerships. We want to ensure that our partners are also successful. To this effect, we have also opened an office in Mumbai.

(Snap has already worked with a number of brands like Pepsi, OnePlus and Cadbury in India. It had also launched SnapKit partnerships with JioSaavn and Gaana.com that helps Snapchat users to share and post music content on the photo app.)

Tech2: A lot of smartphones launching these days come with high megapixel count cameras: 32 MP, 48 MP, 64 MP and so on. Images and videos shot using them take up space, and if Snapchat's AR Lenses or other filters are added, that would theoretically take image size even higher. So how do you ensure that when using the Snapchat apps, the videos don’t take up too much bandwidth to upload and can even work in poor network areas? 

EP: That’s where we have made huge investments. We are covering these type of challenges. We are building a camera-driven platform, and when you talk about high-density images where the filters have a lot more polygons and designs, especially in a fragmented Android ecosystem, we have a mechanism which optimises the final image and video. We also make sure that the quality remains high. It involves a lot of optimisation, working closely with partners and working with Android device makers in order to ensure that the end-user gets an optimal experience.