SAN FRANCISCO – On Saturday, after a 3-mile hike through the Presidio, I stood in a throng of tourists looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. As the crowd 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 that my sunglasses had just taken to my phone.
The process was instant, simple, unobtrusive — and it was powered by Facebook, which has teamed up with Ray-Ban. Their new line of eyewear, called Ray-Ban Stories and unveiled 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 real 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 the everyday lives and clothes of billions of people. 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 out of 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 is aiming to usher in an era when people grow more comfortable sharing their lives digitally, beginning with what is in front of their faces.
“We asked ourselves, how do we build a product that helps people actually be in the moment they’re in?” Andrew Bosworth, head of Facebook Reality Labs, said in an interview. “Isn’t that better than having to take out your phone and hold it in front of your face every time you want to capture a moment?”
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 very specific category that changes the way 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, and we refused to compromise on that design.”
Let’s be real for a second. The new glasses, which start at $299 and come in more than 20 styles, face hurdles apart from Silicon Valley’s stop-start history with smart glasses. Facebook has long been under scrutiny for how it treats people’s personal data. Using the glasses to surreptitiously film people is bound to cause concerns, not to mention what Facebook might do with the videos that people collect.
I asked if Facebook’s brand baggage was why its name was not in the title of the glasses. The company said that was not the case.
“Facebook is not naive to the fact that other smart glasses have failed in the past,” said Jeremy Greenberg, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, a privacy nonprofit partly financed by Facebook. But, he added, “the public’s expectations of privacy have changed since the days of previous smart glasses releases.”
With all of that in mind, I took the new Facebook Ray-Bans out for a spin 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 come with a charging case that plugs into any computer via USB-C cable. On a full charge, the glasses can be used for roughly six hours.
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 photos are encrypted. From Facebook View, people can share the content to their social networks or messaging apps as well as save photos directly to their phone’s on-device storage outside the Facebook app.
To preempt 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 in the moment. The app even invites people to “do a little demo” to show others that they are being recorded.
Still, users may have other hesitations, as I did. The spectacles have an audio activation feature, called 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?
What’s more, to help Facebook improve the assistant, people are asked to allow the device to store transcripts of their voice interactions, which will later be reviewed by a mix of humans and machine-learning algorithms. I did not love that and imagine others will not be too keen, either, no matter how benign their voice interactions might be.
(Opting out of using the Assistant is possible, and users can view and delete their transcripts if desired.)
Many of these privacy concerns are beside the point for technologists who see wearables as inexorable for society. For Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the ultimate goal is to eventually release a pair of smart glasses that fully augment reality, which puts a kind of virtual overlay onto the world in front of people.
That idea is yet another step on the road to the metaverse, Zuckerberg’s term for how parts of the virtual and actual world will eventually meld together and share different parts 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 who are wearing AR glasses might be able to see.
For a few moments on my hike Saturday, I could just 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 was able to shoot using only my voice while still having one hand gripping my dog’s leash and the other holding my backpack. Capturing the cityscape was as easy as issuing a voice command while my phone stayed in my pocket.
Even better, I just looked like a normal dude wearing sunglasses, not someone wearing a wacky face computer.
One added 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.
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