Snap Pledges $3.5M to Fund Augmented Reality Creators to Kick Off Its Lens Fest

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

Snap Pledges $3.5M to Fund Augmented Reality Creators to Kick Off Its Lens Fest

Snap's third annual Lens Fest kicked off Tuesday with a multi-million-dollar bang.

The three-day event convenes Snap's community of external lens creators who use Snap's Lens Studio development toolkit to design augmented reality (AR) filters – which Snap calls lenses – for Snapchat users. That community will be the beneficiary of Snap's announced $3.5 million investment, which will be used to "continue Snap's commitment to funding opportunities for Lens Creators." The company promised to release more details early next year.

This year's Lens Fest is the only to be held virtually rather than at Snap's Santa Monica office and the first that is open to the general public, rather than being invite-only.

To Clay Weishaar, an L.A.-based visual effects artist, that's a welcome change. Weishaar began tinkering around with Lens Studio shortly after it launched about three years ago, while he was working under film director Ridley Scott as part of a writers' room envisioning science-fiction concepts. During his lunch hour, Weishaar would use Lens Studio to make some of those ideas more tangible. For him, it was an eye-opening experience about the power of AR.

"Working in AR is a direct line from your imagination into the physical world," Weishaar said.

He uploaded some of his creations onto Snap but didn't think much of it until a company representative called him out of the blue and told him one of his Lenses was trending.

"I didn't even know what a 'lens' was. I was like, 'trending?'" he recounted. "I remember talking to her and learning there's this big community around lenses and the work that I create can be shared with millions of people. It was all completely new to me. From that moment on I was hooked in terms of creating lenses."

He joined Snap's Lens Creator program and accepted an invitation to the company's inaugural Lens Fest.

"I was blown away," he recalls. "As a creator in L.A., you can often feel like you're in a silo in your own world, especially in AR. What Snap did was – and I still don't know how they did this to this day because it is so authentic – they created this global community of creators from all over the world, from Germany, Japan, all over, and started getting people together who are excited about AR."

Lens Fest - Snap's Global AR Festival on Dec 8-10

The Benefits of Being a Snapchat Lens Creator

Being part of Snap's official Lens Creator community, which counts tens of thousands members who've collectively designed over 1.5 million lenses, offers several benefits to creators like Weishaar.

He says he personally doesn't focus on making money directly from his lenses but appreciates the early access that he gets to Snap's AR features. It gives him a creative leg up and, he says, enables him to design work he's proud of as an artist, like a lens that transforms L.A.'s iconic Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard into a structure with a hot dog pagoda, ice cream cone turrets, and a donut gong.

It's also helped Weishaar build a 297,000-strong global following on Instagram, which in turn has led to his designing lenses for brands. He's formed his own AR design studio, Wrld Space, and his early access to Snap's latest tools enables him to offer a valuable service to companies looking to reach Snap's audience.

"I can be working with a brand and know early what's coming out, and once it's out I can create a lens for them that uses technology that separates them from other brands," he said.

Several other L.A.-based AR studios count themselves among Snap's Lens Creator program, including Blnk and Paper Triangles.

Snap Lens Fest

How Snap Benefits By Keeping Lens Creators Happy

For Snap, providing lens-building tools to outsiders isn't some altruistic giveaway.

"It's low-cost, differentiated content," said Laura Martin, a media analyst at boutique investment bank Needham & Co.

Low-cost content is obviously attractive to a company. But it's the differentiation – lenses are apparently harder to copy than Snap's hallmark disappearing-messages feature – that helps Snap earn money through its lenses, by attracting brands.

"You can only do a lens on Snap," Martin said. That is, brands who want to do a sponsored lens can't just go to any social platform. And Snap's readily accessible pool of lens creators makes that decision easier.

Having a trove of fun lenses also helps Snap attract and retain users. The company claimed on Tuesday that lenses made by its creator community have been viewed more than 1 trillion times. Snap has previously said that over 75% of its some 249 million daily active users use lenses every day.

That engagement drives up advertising revenues and decreases churn.

"If you keep finding cool lenses, you're more likely to go back tomorrow and the next day," Martin said. "It keeps people in the Snap ecosystem longer."

That's particularly attractive to brands who want to reach a young audience, as Snap claims to reach 90% of 13-24 year-olds in the U.S.

Although revenue from sponsored lenses isn't as substantial as the ads Snap inserts into its platform, Martin said lens campaigns can serve as a gateway for brands to get to know Snap , and can open doors to future revenue-generating opportunities.

"It attracts them in a differentiated way," she said. "They have to talk to Snap about doing this because they're the only one that does it. And now Snap has them in a dialogue."

In that way, lenses play a key role in Snap's ongoing quest to reach profitability.

"They sit in a really nice intersection of creative and commercial," Martin said.

Snap Lens Fest

Accelerating AR

Events like the Lens Summit can have more impact, however, than filling Snap's coffers or inspiring more quirky creativity. To Weishaar, expanding knowledge of how to create AR offers potential for social good, too.

He recalls his travels, on Snap's dime, to MIT and Stanford campuses to facilitate hackathons using the company's AR tools, alongside its machine-learning design kit. At one event, Weishaar said he was moved by a group of students who used the tools to design a camera program that could identify spine curvature in elderly people that could signal a high risk of falling. Catching that early and intervening could save lives.

"It's so exciting to see this technology go out into the hands of more people," Weishaar said, "because they start solving real-world problems and start figuring out ways to better humanity."

Snap Lens Fest runs from December 8th through 10th. You can still register here.


Sam Blake primarily covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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