Smart Glasses Made Google Look Dumb. Now Facebook Is Giving Them a Try.

SAN FRANCISCO — Last Saturday, after a three-mile hike through the Presidio, I stood in a crowd of tourists looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. As the group snapped photos of the landmark, I decided to join in. But instead of reaching into my pocket for my iPhone, I tapped the side of my Ray-Ban sunglasses until I heard the click of a shutter. Later, I downloaded the photos my sunglasses had just taken to my phone. The process was instant, simple, and discreet — and it was powered by Facebook, which has teamed up with Ray-Ban. Their new line of eyewear called Ray-Ban Stories, unveiled on Thursday, can take photos, record video, answer phone calls, and play music and podcasts.

It all made me feel that I was being dragged into some inevitable future dreamed up by people much more techie than me, one in which the seams between the natural world and the technology that supports it had all but vanished. For years, Silicon Valley has chased a vision similar to that of a William Gibson novel, where sensors and cameras are woven into billions of people’s everyday lives and clothes. Yet, the tech companies that have pursued these ideas have often failed to achieve them, as people have shunned wearable computers — especially on their faces.

Remember Google Glass, the smart glasses that Google co-founder Sergey Brin introduced while jumping from an airplane? That project foundered, with bars in San Francisco at one point barring Glass-wearers — also pejoratively known as “Glassholes” — from entry. Later came Snap’s Spectacles, smart glasses that focused more on fashion and the novelty of recording 10-second video clips. That product, too, never really broke through. Now Facebook aims to usher in an era when people grow more comfortable sharing their lives digitally, beginning with what is in front of their faces.

Smart Glasses

“We asked ourselves, how do we build a product that helps people be in the moment they’re in?” Andrew Bosworth, head of Facebook Reality Labs, said in an interview. “Isn’t that better than hatakingut your phone and hoholdingt in front of your face every time you want to capture a moment?” Mr. Bosworth rejected claims that Facebook was picking up where others had left off. “This product has not been tried before because we’ve never had a design like this before,” he said, adding that Facebook and Ray-Ban were focused more on the fashion of eyewear than the tech inside the frames.

“Eyewear is a particular category that changes how you look,” said Rocco Basilico, chief wearables officer at Luxottica, which owns Ray-Ban and wants to expand into the wearables market. “We started this product from the design, nd refused to compromise on that design.” The new glasses start at $299 and come in over 20 styles, facing hurdles apart from Silicon Valley’s stop-start history with smart glasses. Let’s be honest for a second. Facebook has long been scrutinized for its treatment of people’s data. Using mirrors to film people secretly is bound to cause concerns, not to mention what Facebook might do with the videos people collect. I asked if Facebook’s brand baggage was why its name wasn’t in the title of the glasses. The company said that wasn’t the case.

Let Us Help You Protect Your Digital Life

“Facebook is not naïve to the fact that other smart glasses have failed in the past,” said Jeremy Greenberg, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum. This private nonprofit Facebook partly finances. But, he added, “the public’s expectations of privacy have changed since the days of previous smart glasses releases.” With all that in mind, I took the new Facebook Ray-Bans out for a few days over the past week. On close inspection, I found the frames house two cameras, two micro speakers, three microphones, and a Snapdragon computer processor chip. They also have a charging case that plugs into any computer via a USB-C cable. The glasses can be used for roughly six hours on a full charge.

The spectacles require a Facebook account. They are also paired with a smartphone app, Facebook View. After recording videos — the glasses can record up to 35 30-second videos or take 500 photos — people can upload their content wirelessly to the app, where the images are encrypted. From Facebook View, people can share content to their social networks or messaging apps and save photos directly to their phone’s on-device storage outside the Facebook app.

To pre-empt privacy concerns, a small indicator light flickers on when the glasses are recording, notifying people that they are being photographed or filmed. As you set up the Facebook View app, it also displays prompts asking users to “respect others around you” and asking whether it “feels appropriate” to take a photograph or video at the moment. The app even invites people to “do a little demo” to show others they are recorded. Still, users may have other hesitations, as I did. The spectacles have an audio activation feature Facebook Assistant, which can be turned on to take hands-free photos and videos by saying, “Hey, Facebook.”

For me, that was a sticking point. What do the people around me think when they hear me utter, “Hey, Facebook, take a photo”? Can I still look cool doing that? Can anyone? Moreover, to help Facebook improve the Assistant, people are asked to allow the device to store transcripts of their voice interactions, which a mix of humans and machine-learning algorithms will later review. (Opting out of using the Assistant is possible, and users can view and delete their transcripts if desired.) I didn’t love that and imagine others won’t be too keen, no matter how benign their voice interactions might be.

Many of these privacy concerns are beside the point for technologists who see wearables as inexorable for society. For Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, the ultimate goal is to eventually release a pair of smart glasses that fully augment reality, putting virtual overlay onto the world in front of people. That idea is yet another step on the road to the metaverse, Mr. Zuckerberg’s term for how parts of the virtual and actual world will eventually meld together and share different aspects of each other. Perhaps one day, I might use a pair of Facebook AR glasses to order a digital hat for myself, which other people wearing AR glasses might be able to see.

For a few moments on my hike last Saturday, I could make out that vision of the future that Facebook executives were so excited about. Clambering down the many trails in the Presidio presented me with dazzling views, which I could shoot using only my voice while shipping my dog’s leash and holding my backpack. Capturing the cityscape was as easy as issuing a voice command while my phone stayed in my pocket. Even better, I looked like a normal dude wearing sunglasses, not someone wearing a wacky face computer. One bonus was that no one (except my dog) could hear me say “Hey, Facebook” while I was alone on the trails. But in the city surrounded by people, I confess I might stick to tapping the side of my frames to take photos.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!