It’s hard not to be charmed by Snap’s tiny, friendly drone and her desire to be your flying selfie camera. But beneath the Pixy’s yellow livery lies a concept that tried and failed to take off five years ago – and has since been eclipsed by a better alternative.
In 2017 I received a demo of the original AirSelfie, an idea very similar to the Pixy that’s still going in the form of the Air Neo. It was novel and fun, especially since it closely followed the arrival of gesture control DJI Spark. But it was also very obvious that it couldn’t escape the laws of physics – the same laws that weigh on the Snap Pixy like an overweight pigeon.
No one expects a $230 palm-sized drone to record cinematic video. The Snap Pixy is designed to capture 20-second clips that live on in your SnapChat memories, and that’s perfectly fine. But the problem with tiny drones isn’t the image quality – it’s all the other limitations that collectively detract from the user experience.
A 101g drone is great for portability, but it can’t handle even the slightest breeze. There’s also room for only the smallest of batteries, meaning the Snap Pixy can only handle up to eight of those short flights. That means you better nail that video or hope there’s no breeze or you’ll have to frantically swap out backup batteries or wait 40 minutes for a recharge. And that’s assuming you haven’t already sent your cat to get the Pixy down a tree, since it can’t dodge obstacles.
All of these are problems that computer software, which has been the go-to card for smartphones, just can’t solve. But five years after the original AirSelfie, software doesn’t seem to be able to help even mini-drones with video quality. The Snap Pixy can shoot perfectly respectable 2.7k/30p video in good light, but the size of its sensor means a touch of gloom can make your video look like it was blasted by a confetti cannon of noise.
To be fair to Snap, it added its own twists to the AirSelfie concept. There are software tools like Hyperspeed, Orbit or Jump Cut to play with and it does basic person tracking. But the problem isn’t really the execution, it’s the flawed concept itself – and that’s why it feels like Snap should have taken inspiration from Insta360’s cameras instead.
Flying without drones
Insta360 has amassed a sizeable following on social media, albeit one that is dwarfed by SnapChat’s user base thanks to its unique video cameras. It’s the master of ‘how did you do that?’ video tricks, and one of its best features is the “invisible selfie stick”.
If you’ve recently seen a video that looks like it was taken with a mini drone, it was probably taken with a 360-degree camera like this one Insta360 One X2 instead of this. These cameras have dual 200-degree lenses, meaning there’s some redundancy between the two to play with — and that means the stitching software can automatically remove a selfie stick used to hold the camera was used.
It’s not a perfect solution as you have to be careful where you place your hand to make it look natural. But the effect is impressive, and much more practical than a mini drone because it solves most of the problems — like wind, battery life, obstacle avoidance, and drone laws — that thwart flying cameras like the Snap Pixy.
I have no doubt that some SnapChat users will pick up a Pixy drone and find it to be a useful way to shoot the odd video or even find an innovative new use case that no one has thought of. But its practical limitations mean that the ceiling is low and the room for experimentation is greater for some The best 360 cameras.
Snap has rebranded itself as a camera company, but the whole point of cameras is that they get out of the way so you can do cool stuff. The Snap Pixy feels more like a piece of flying marketing than an attempt to solve a real problem — and like the company’s mystery vending machines a few years ago, it’s likely to be considered a success in those terms.
But the work Snap is doing with its Spectacles and AR feels a lot more interesting and innovative – the Pixy really is an idea that should have been grounded a few years ago.