Opening the camera

by Peter Rojas

Cameras in phones were treated mainly as an afterthought or weird novelty when they first started showing up in handsets in the early 2000's. One response to a BBC article back in 2001 about cameras being added to phones in Japan was, "Infinite uses for the teenager, not entirely sure what the rest of us would do with one though." Sixteen years later it is virtually impossible to find a mobile phone without one. The camera is now a critical -- possibly even defining -- feature of the smartphone, and yet there is still a remarkable amount of friction to doing more with the default camera on your phone than capturing a photo or a video. 

That will need to change if the camera is going to be the starting point for so much of what we do with our phones and become a sort of visual browser that intermediates and augments our experience of the world. One way for that to happen would be for Apple and Google to allow developers to add lightweight extensions to the OS's default camera app, like lenses, filters, AR objects, or specialized image recognition capabilities that wouldn't necessarily justify building a full-blown app. Yes, iOS and Android developers have been able to take advantage of the phone's camera forever, but they've never been able to hook into or add onto the phone’s camera itself. 

Making the camera the place where these experiences live would help overcome context switching, which can be a remarkably high hurdle when it comes to getting users actually to engage with an app. This says nothing of getting them to install one in the first place -- something that is going to be especially important with the addition of ARKit to iOS and ARCore to Android this year. It should be as easy as possible for users to point their camera at the world and then augment, enhance, or recognize it. We should be able to have the camera open and then decide what we want to do with it, not the other way around.

There is already a precedent of sorts for this. Apple’s iMessage now has an App Store that goes beyond stickers to offer all sorts of contextual applications for enhancing chats, like Square for sending cash, or games like Crosswords with Friends. The latest figures I was able to find were from March of this year, when the iMessage App Store was estimated to have over 5,000 apps. That number has surely grown. And while Apple could do a lot to improve the experience here, being able to pull apps directly into the messaging experience makes a lot more sense than forcing users to jump out of what they're doing and into something else. 

We might see something along the lines of what I'm thinking come from Google first. Earlier this month they announced AR Stickers (basically 3D objects which can be inserted into scenes) for the camera of their line of flagship Pixel phones. They also unveiled Lens, which adds a number of computer vision-driven experiences to the Pixel's camera, like translating text written in other languages, identifying flowers, or pulling up ratings and reviews of a business simply by taking a photo of a storefront. Right now these are first-party, not third-party apps, but it’s not difficult to envision developers being able to augment the Lens experience in a variety of ways. Lens will be rolling out to Pixel phones soon, but it's expected to trickle down to other Android phones sooner or later. 

Apps which offer their own camera experiences won't go away, but opening up the camera as a sort of platform-within-a-platform would offer greater flexibility and intelligence to our devices than we have today. It would allow developers to add specialized image recognition capabilities, giving us phones which are better at knowing what they're looking it. It would also reduce the friction involved with using lenses, 3D objects, and other contextually-driven and location-based AR content and experiences, which wouldn't have to be siloed into their own apps (or only usable within Snapchat, Facebook, etc.). But perhaps most importantly, it would take us a step towards better understanding and defining the future we are headed towards, where screens themselves become secondary to the augmented view of the world we will have through smartglasses. Even if that future is still a few (or more) years away, we are approaching a time when a handheld screen with a field of icons will no longer make any sense when our expectations will be to have interfaces and experiences which surface intelligently within our field of view. Building great UX and UI for the post-smartphone world will take time, but opening up the camera would help us begin to figure this out.