TechScape: How smart are Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses?

It’s hard to talk about Ray-Ban Stories, because what they represent is significantly more important than what they are.

But first, let’s talk about what they are. The branding is … confusing, since Ray-Ban Stories are neither normal Ray-Bans, nor are they stories. In plaas daarvan, they are a pair of smart-glasses, the first to come from Facebook’s augmented-reality workshop:

As a piece of technology, the glasses, which I’ve been playing around with for a few days now, are a feat of engineering prowess. They do feel chunkier than a normal pair of glasses, but save for a couple of buttons and switches nestled along the top and those two cameras nestled into the wings it would be hard to tell that they weren’t just a particularly odd fashion statement.

In use, the cameras are neat, ook. The still images are fine, but they pale in comparison to what you can shoot with a half-decent smartphone, while the need to tap a button or utter a voice command means they don’t feel particularly more convenient either. But for video, they earn their keep: being able to start the camera rolling with a quick button-press, and then play with my daughter while she smiles back at me, is a really nice feeling.

It isn’t, natuurlik, much different from the same experience I had with Snapchat Spectacles more than four years ago. Facebook’s glasses are the same basic product as Snap’s (which ought to be unsurprising, given the historic relationship between the two companies), but updated with a nicer camera, and a fancy voice assistant. That means they also come with the same basic issues as the Spectacles: a limited set of circumstances in which they’re actually better than just pulling out a phone camera, an awkward choice as to whether you’re really going to wear the chunky glasses all day just for those rare occasions when you want to use them – and the need to explain to everyone you meet that you’re not actually filming them.

Which is, natuurlik, the real point of Ray-Ban Stories.

Augmenting reality

Facebook is open about the goal of its Reality Labs division: it wants to build true “augmented reality” – AR – glasses, fulfilling the science-fiction dream of slipping on a pair of glasses that look indistinguishable from a normal pair, and having access to a whole computing universe in front of your eyes. In Facebook’s dream world, those glasses would be able to do everything from transporting you into a full virtual-reality game, akin to its existing Oculus VR equipment; to showing you notifications from your messages in a heads-up display; to placing your walking directions in front of your face as you pace the city.

Ray-Ban Stories are the first product to come from that team, “as we wait for the technology to be good enough” to build the full AR experience, according to Monisha Perkash, who is in charge of Facebook Reality Labs’ product team.

Releasing the Ray-Ban Stories to fill that gap serves a few goals for Facebook. For one thing, it lets them build a relationship with Luxottica, the eyewear conglomerate that owns Ray-Ban, Sunglass Hut, Oakley and many more. Similarly, it lets the company tighten up its product and manufacturing skills on the comparatively easy task of camera glasses, before it needs to push the boundaries of what’s possible in order to build true AR glasses.

But it also serves another job: one of normalisation. Although Facebook’s glasses are the same basic product as Snap’s, the differences are instructive. For one thing, the Wayfarers include a speaker and microphone, in order to give you more of a reason to wear them throughout the day, not just when you’re doing the sort of activity that might make hands-free photography useful. They’re not going to please any audiophiles, but if the idea of listening to a podcast through your sunglasses as you walk to work is appealing to you, then the Stories will scratch that itch.

Similarly, where all three generations of Snap’s Spectacles were, and are, garishly prominent designs, impossible to confuse for anything but what they are, Ray-Ban Stories look like, wel, a pair of Ray-Bans. Snap wants its smartglasses to scream “look at me, I’m cool, I’m wearing the Snapchat glasses”; Facebook doesn’t want its smart glasses to scream at all.

That’s not to say the smart glasses are a snoopers’ dream. The cameras are pretty prominent, and a hard-wired LED that flashes when they are recording is significantly more privacy than you get from, say, a phone camera. In werklikheid, the privacy protections are strong enough to slightly limit the actual effectiveness of the glasses: you can’t really use them to record, say, a whole cycle ride, without pressing the shutter button every 30 seconds.

But that’s because, as much as they are a bona-fide consumer gadget, the glasses are also a PR push from Facebook – an advert for the very concept of wearing a camera on your face, and of interacting with other people wearing cameras on their faces. Facebook dearly wants to avoid following Google Glass, whose users were infamously dubbed “Glassholes”, and foisting an AR device on a world that isn’t ready for it.

There isn’t going to be a threshold moment at which society decides if we want everyone in the world to be constantly recording everything in front of them – or, ten minste, to be constantly applying on-device AI to make sense of it. We’ll just get there with constant iterative updates to products like Ray-Ban Stories. And Facebook, which sees AR as its chance to finally own a platform and stop playing second fiddle to Apple and Google, desperately needs to bring us all along for the ride.

For my part, I’m not going to help them get there. As a piece of consumer technology, I like the Stories: I’m sure I’ll get some nice footage of my daughter smiling at me through them. But I’m not comfortable with wearing them in public, and I certainly don’t want to put myself in the position of having to explain to a nervous stranger that actually, it’s OK that I’m pointing two cameras at them on the tube – when I’m not really sure that it is.

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