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


It is difficult to talk about Ray-Ban Stories, because what they represent is much more important than what they are.

But first, let’s talk about what they are. The branding image is… confusing, since the Ray-Ban Stories are neither normal Ray-Ban nor stories. Rather, it is a pair of connected glasses, the first from Facebook’s augmented reality workshop:

Facebook was able to squeeze an impressive amount into a frame a few millimeters thicker and five grams heavier than a standard pair of Wayfarers. Each wing of the glasses hides a camera, which combines to take five-megapixel stills and videos for up to 30 seconds with a long or short press of the device’s single button. So far so similar to the Snap Shows, but the Ray-Ban Stories also feature open-ear speakers for listening and a “three-microphone audio package to deliver rich voice and sound transmission for calls. and videos “. These microphones also allow you to control the glasses by voice, for a hands-free experience.

As a piece of tech, the glasses, which I’ve been playing with for a few days now, are a feat of engineering. They feel bigger than a normal pair of glasses, but with the exception of a few buttons and switches tucked away on top and those two cameras tucked into the fenders, it would be hard to tell they weren’t just a particularly strange fashion statement.

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In use, the cameras are also neat. Still images are good, but they are pale compared to what you can shoot with a half-decent smartphone, while the need to press a button or say a voice command means they don’t feel particularly more practical either. But for video, they make a living: being able to start the camera with a quick press of a button, then play with my daughter while she is smiling at me, is a really nice feeling.

This is of course not much different from the same experience I had with Snapchat Spectacles over four years ago. Facebook’s glasses are the same basic product as Snap’s (which shouldn’t be surprising, given the historical relationship between the two companies), but updated with a nicer camera and a sophisticated voice assistant. This means that they also have the same basic issues as glasses: a limited set of circumstances in which they’re actually better than just pulling out a phone camera, a tricky choice as to whether you’re really going to wear them. big glasses all day long just for the rare occasions you want to use them – and the need to explain to everyone you meet that you aren’t actually filming them.

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

Increase reality

Facebook is open on the goal of its Reality Labs division: it wants to build real “augmented reality” – AR – glasses, fulfilling the sci-fi dream of slipping on a pair of glasses that seem indistinguishable from a normal pair , and to have access to a whole computer universe before your eyes. In the dreamlike world of Facebook, these glasses could do it all from transporting you into a full-blown virtual reality game, similar to its existing Oculus VR gear; to show you your message notifications in a heads-up display; to place your walking directions in front of your face as you roam the city.

The Ray-Ban Stories are the first product to come out of this team, “until the technology is good enough” to create a complete AR experience, according to Monisha Perkash, head of the product team at Facebook Reality Labs.

Publishing the Ray-Ban Stories to fill this gap serves a few purposes for Facebook. On the one hand, it allows them to forge a relationship with Luxottica, the eyewear conglomerate that owns Ray-Ban, Sunglass Hut, Oakley and many more. Likewise, it allows the company to ramp up its product and manufacturing skills on the relatively easy task of camera glasses, before having to push the boundaries of what is possible in order to build true AR glasses.

But it also serves another job: that of standardization. While Facebook’s glasses are the same commodity as Snap’s, the differences are instructive. On the one hand, Wayfarers include a speaker and microphone, to give you more reason to wear them throughout the day, not just when doing the kind of activity that could make photography hands-free. useful. They won’t appeal to any audiophile, but if the thought of listening to a podcast through your sunglasses on the way to work appeals to you, then Stories will cross that itch.

Likewise, where the three generations of Snap’s Spectacles were, and are, garish designs, impossible to mistake for anything other than what they are, the Ray-Ban Stories look, well, like a pair of Ray-Ban’s. . Snap wants his smart glasses to scream “look at me, I’m cool, I’m wearing Snapchat glasses”; Facebook doesn’t want its smart glasses to scream at all.

That’s not to say that smart glasses are a nosy person’s dream. The cameras are quite prominent, and a wired LED that flashes when recording offers a lot more privacy than what you get, say, with a phone camera. In fact, the privacy protections are strong enough to limit the actual effectiveness of the glasses slightly: you can’t really use them to record, say, a full bike ride, without pressing the shutter button every 30 seconds.

But that’s because, as much as they are a real consumer gadget, glasses are also a public relations push from Facebook – an advertisement for the very concept of wearing a camera on the face and interacting with it. other people with cameras on their faces. faces. Facebook really wants to avoid following Google Glass, whose users have been infamously dubbed “Glassholes,” and forcing an AR device on a world that isn’t ready for it.

There won’t be a threshold moment at which society decides whether we want everyone in the world to constantly log everything in front of them – or, at least, constantly apply AI to the device to give it one direction. We’ll just get there with constant iterative updates from products like Ray-Ban Stories. And Facebook, which sees AR as its chance to finally own a platform and stop playing the supporting role behind Apple and Google, desperately needs to take us along on the run.

For my part, I will not help them get there. As mainstream tech, I love Stories: I’m sure I’ll get some great pictures of my daughter smiling at me through them. But I’m not comfortable 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 it’s actually OK that I’m pointing two cameras at. them on the tube – when I’m not really sure that’s the case.

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