SAN FRANCISCO – Recently, after a three-mile hike through Presidio National Park, I came across a crowd of tourists looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. While people were taking photos of the monument, I decided to join them.
However, instead of reaching for my iPhone in my pocket, I tapped the side of my Ray-Ban sunglasses until I heard a shutter click. Later, I downloaded the photos that my sunglasses had just taken to my phone.
The process was instant, simple and unobtrusive, and was done through Facebook, which partnered with Ray-Ban. Its new line of lenses, called Ray-Ban Stories, introduced on September 9, can take photos, record videos, answer phone calls, and play music and podcasts.
I felt drawn into an inevitable future dreamed of by people much more technological than me, in which the boundaries between the real world and the technology that sustain it disappeared.
For years, Silicon Valley has pursued a vision similar to that of a William Gibson novel, in which sensors and cameras are woven into the everyday lives and clothing of billions of people. However, tech companies that have tried to carry out these ideas have often failed, as wearable computers have been rejected by people, especially to their faces.
Remember the Google Glass device, the smart glasses that Google co-founder Sergey Brin introduced while jumping out of a plane? That project failed, and at one point San Francisco bars banned those who wore Glass glasses, also known pejoratively as “Glassholes.” Later came the Snap Spectacles, smart glasses that focused more on fashion and the novelty of shooting ten-second videos. That product couldn’t break through either.
Now, Facebook aims to usher in an era in which people feel more comfortable sharing their lives digitally, starting with what is in front of them.
“We wondered how we could create a product that helps people live in the moment,” said Andrew Bosworth, director of Facebook Reality Labs, in an interview. “Isn’t it better than having to take out your cell 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 on what others had left behind. “The product has not been tested before because we have never had a design like this,” he said, adding that Facebook and Ray-Ban focused more on eyewear fashion than technology within the frames.
“Eyewear is a very specific category that changes the way you look,” said Rocco Basilico, director of wearable technology at Luxottica, owner of Ray-Ban, which wants to expand into the wearable technology market. “We started this product from design, and we refuse to compromise that design.”
Let’s get real for a moment. The new glasses, which start at $ 299 and come in more than twenty styles, face obstacles other than Silicon Valley’s on-and-off history and smart glasses. Facebook has long faced questions about the way it handles users’ personal data. The use of glasses to stealthily film people is a cause for concern, not to mention what Facebook might do with the videos that are recorded.
I asked if the past of the Facebook brand was the reason why their name was not on the glasses brand. The company said that was not the case.
“Facebook is not naïve to the fact that other smart glasses have failed in the past,” said Jeremy Greenberg, policy advisor for the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit organization funded in part by Facebook. But, he added, “the public’s expectations of privacy have changed since the launches of previous smart glasses.”
With all that in mind, I tested the new Facebook Ray-Bans for a few days recently.
Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the cages have two cameras, two micro speakers, three microphones, and a Snapdragon computer processor chip. They also come with a charging case that connects to any computer via a USB-C cable. On a full charge, the lenses can be used for approximately six hours.
Below is a video I took with Facebook’s Ray-Ban glasses near the Golden Gate Bridge.
The glasses require a Facebook account. They are also linked to an application for smartphones: Facebook View. After recording videos – the lenses can record up to 35 30-second videos or take 500 photos – users can upload their content wirelessly to the app, where the photos are encrypted. From Facebook View, users can share content on their social networks or messaging applications, as well as save photos directly to the phone’s memory without having contact with the social network.
To avoid privacy concerns, a small indicator light turns on when the glasses are recording, notifying users that they are being photographed or filmed. When configuring the Facebook View application, prompts are also displayed asking users to “respect those around them” and asking if it is “appropriate” for them to take a photo or video at that time. The app even invites users to “do a little demo” to show others that they are recording them.
However, users may have other questions, as I did. The glasses have an audio activation feature, called the Facebook Assistant, which can be activated to take photos and videos hands-free by saying, “Hey, Facebook.”
For me, that was a sticking point. What will the people around me think when they hear me say “Hey Facebook, take a picture”? Will I look good doing that? I don’t think nobody looks good doing that.
Additionally, to help Facebook improve the assistant, users are being asked to allow the device to store transcripts of their voice interactions, which will then be reviewed by a mix of human and machine learning algorithms. I have not liked it, and I imagine that others will not like it either, however benign their voice interactions are.
(You can choose not to use the Wizard, and users can view and delete their transcripts if they want to.)
Many of these privacy concerns are unimportant to technologists looking at wearable technology (wearables in English) as something inexorable for society. For Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, the ultimate goal is to finally launch a pair of smart glasses that fully augment reality, putting a kind of virtual overlay on the world in front of people.
This idea is one more step on the way to the metaverse, Zuckerberg’s term for how parts of the virtual world and the real world will eventually merge and share different parts with each other. Maybe one day I can use some augmented reality glasses from Facebook to order a digital hat for me that other people wearing augmented reality glasses will be able to see.
During my walk on Saturday, I was able to make out that vision of the future that Facebook executives are so excited about.
Going down the many trails of Presidio Park provided dazzling views that I was able to photograph using just my voice, while holding my dog’s leash in one hand and carrying my backpack with the other. Capturing the cityscape was as easy as issuing a voice command while my cell phone was still in my pocket.
And what’s better, he looked like a normal guy in sunglasses, and not someone with a weird computer on his face.
An added bonus was that no one (except my dog) could hear me say “Hey Facebook”, when I was alone on the trails. But in the city, surrounded by people, I confess that I may just press the button on the mount to take photos.
Mike Isaac is a technology reporter and author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which has been on the NYT bestseller list on the dramatic rise and fall of the passenger transport company. It regularly covers Facebook and Silicon Valley, and is based in the San Francisco bureau of the Times. @MikeIsaac