Snapchat launches augmented reality developer platform Lens Studio

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Snapchat is finally opening up so outside developers can help it offer infinite augmented reality experiences beyond those it designs in-house. Today, Snap launches the Lens Studio AR developer tool for desktops so anyone can create World Lenses that place interactive, imaginary 3D objects in your photos and videos.

But brands, news publishers and developers will have to promote their own Lenses by marketing their QR Snapcodes that users scan to unlock an AR effect for 24 hours. That’s because Snapchat won’t display these Community Lenses in its camera unless businesses pay a partnered creative agency to build them a special effect and then buy Sponsored Lens ads from Snap.

The launch could vastly broaden Snapchat’s AR entertainment value, helping it to compete with Facebook’s own Camera Effects AR platform that launched to all developers early this week. Though for now the platform only lets you make World Lenses and not selfie masks, more AR toys will give Snapchat a much-needed boost to sharing and viewing at a time when user growth has slowed to a trickle in the face of Instagram’s competition.

Snap already sees one-third of its 178 million daily users play with Lenses each day for an average of 3 minutes, which adds up to 500 years of playtime with AR each day. And that’s just with the 3,000 Lenses Snap has made itself. With the opening of the platform, Snap’s VP of engineering and camera platform leader Eitan Pilipski tells me, “There’s something magical about coming back every day and finding that there’s a new experience.”

By removing its in-house AR design team as a bottleneck through agency partnerships, Snap could scale up augmented reality advertising so it doesn’t miss its quarterly revenue target again.

The launch is a wise move. Back in April I wrote that “Snap’s anti-developer attitude is an augmented liability,” discussing how filling the real world with AR was too tall of a task for Snap to tackle on its own. It needed an army of outside developers to assist it, and now it’s recruiting that army. The question is whether developers see the audience scale in Snapchat necessary to validate investing time into the platform, and whether Snap provides enough unpaid access to that audience. Because to move the needle on growth, Snapchat needs the AR brainchildren of more than just slimy marketers slapping brands atop the virtual world.