Snap Pixy: hands-on with Snapchat’s selfie drone
More than five years after the release of Spectacles, Snap is back with a second hardware product. And this time it flies.
Yes, Snap made a drone. Called Pixy, the little yellow puck lifts off your hand, follows you, and captures a video that can be sent back to Snapchat. It’s Snap’s attempt to create a more user-friendly and accessible drone than other products on the market – and it may hint at the more advanced, AR-powered future that Snap is gearing towards.
Pixy is available online for $230 in the US and France starting Thursday. Unlike most drones out there, it’s small and light enough to fit in a pants pocket. There is no controller; it takes off and lands on an outstretched palm, and it uses six pre-programmed flight patterns accessed via a dial on the top of the device.
Why on earth would Snap, which primarily operates a short-lived messaging app, make a selfie drone? That’s the first question I ask CEO Evan Spiegel.
“Because we’re a camera company,” he told me over video chat recently. Snap has been brandishing this slogan 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, experience the world, and have fun together. And this product does just that.
Spiegel has been interested in drones for years, dating back at least to 2016, when Snap began tinkering with how the devices might fit into its camera company’s strategy. He came close to acquiring a Chinese drone company called Zero Zero Robotics around this time, but the time was not right. With Facebook aggressively copying its core Stories feature, investors doubted Snap’s growth prospects as a new public stock, and the deal ultimately fell through because of the price. The business is still not always profitable, but Snapchat is now growing much faster than Facebook and already has more users than Twitter.
So far, drones have not moved beyond professional use cases and early adopters. Most are heavy, noisy and expensive. Some even require a permit. One of the main goals of Pixy was to make it accessible with friendly-sounding propellers and a design that could fit in your pocket. “We finally got to a place where we were like, ‘Wow, that’s super fun. I guess we should probably post it,’” Spiegel says.
The Pixy weighs only 101 grams with its interchangeable battery inserted. Snap says a full charge will get you five to eight flights, which can range from around 10 to 20 seconds – a short flight even by tiny drone standards. Additional batteries cost $20, and Snap sells a dual-battery portable charger for $50. The Pixy’s 12MP sensor records up to 100 videos or 1,000 photos, all stored locally on a 16GB drive.
The footage is wirelessly synced to Snapchat’s Memories section, 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 application or elsewhere. Snap has included a few Pixy-specific AR effects to choose from, and I expect more to be added over time from the company and its creators. An auto-crop feature can quickly turn horizontal footage into Snap’s basic vertical orientation, centered on the main subject. Video quality isn’t amazing – it’s not something you’re going to want to view on a big screen – but it’s good enough for viewing on a phone.
Thanks to a downward-facing camera, the Pixy’s main trick is to take off and land in your hand. Its front-facing camera should be aligned at roughly eye level when it takes off, then it automatically follows you as you move. When you’re ready to complete the flight, simply reach out to the Pixy and it returns to your palm. During outdoor and indoor testing, I found this to be the most impressive part of using the drone; it works and induces a rare “wow” moment the first time it happens.
Spiegel sees the Pixy as a new way to capture people-centered moments, which is a narrower view than how drones have traditionally been 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 definitely better than what your smartphone can create.
The Pixy stands out from competing small drones with its simplicity. DJI has been building small drones for years that can take off from your hand and automatically follow you anywhere; these drones also offer longer battery life and higher quality video. But these competing models are also more expensive and much more complicated to use. And they’re still a lot bigger than the pocket-sized Pixy.
There are 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 lower camera that automates flight.
Snap doesn’t plan to make a lot of money from the Pixy. “The goal is really to get it into people’s hands and have them play with it,” according to Spiegel. “And maybe we’d do more with version two if people like the original product.” If anything, Snap may have set its own expectations for Version 1 too low, he says. “Honestly, looking back, we probably should have done more. And now it’s just tough with everything going on in the supply chain. We just didn’t expect it to be this good .
Back in 2016, before Spectacles dropped, I noticed that Snap advertised job openings with the tagline, “Toys are preludes to serious ideas.”
First coined by famed design duo Charles and Ray Eames, the phrase has since proven to be iconic of how Snap works. What started as a sexting app ten years ago now has over 330 million daily users, 75% of them 13-34 year olds in more than 20 countries. More than 250 million of these users interact with AR effects, or Lenses, every day. These Lenses started out by letting people vomit rainbows and wear dog ears. Now they can solve math equations and let you try on clothes.
The glasses were never a commercial success, and Snap initially overstated demand for them, but now they’re full-fledged AR glasses that represent what many technologists, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, believe to be the next big wave in computing. Although it has far less money than Meta or Apple, Snap is first in its peer group with working AR glasses and a thriving 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. It focuses on the camera because that’s how people already express themselves on cellphones. “When we look at our approach to hardware, it’s just about extending the core of what people do and love about Snapchat,” he says. “One of the things that really changed our perspective on the cameras was the hands-free nature of the Spectacles, because people were making totally different things.” A flying camera naturally develops this idea.
If Spectacles is any indication, Spiegel likely has several future Pixy generations up his sleeve. He sees building hardware as a long-term commitment, especially on the AR glasses side – though he doesn’t see these becoming mainstream for years. “It’s something we wanted to improve steadily over time because it’s very important for the long term of our business,” he tells me. “At the same time, there are a lot of technical constraints today that mean it will be difficult for AR glasses to reach scale in the short term. And so I don’t think the prudent approach for us would be trying to push the scale for a product that isn’t ready yet.
Ultimately, Pixy might turn out to be more of a short-term hit than Shows, Spiegel thinks. “After a few releases of camera glasses, it becomes very clear that the market for camera glasses is actually very small and limited to people who want that first-person perspective,” he says. “I think the market for Pixy is bigger.”
Coming 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 grounded in the real world. Snap recently bought a French startup called NextMind which made a headband to control computers with your thoughts. Is there a future coming where I wear AR glasses and control a Pixy paired with my mind?
When I ask Spiegel about all this, he laughs, indicating that’s the most I’m getting from him on the record. The Pixy is just a toy, at least for now.