Smart glasses made Google look dumb. Now Facebook is giving them a try

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.
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.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Two Saturdays ago (Sept 4), 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 last Thursday (Sept 9), 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.

Mr 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?"

He added that Facebook and Ray-Ban were focused more on the fashion of eyewear than the tech inside the frames.

Let's be real for a second. The new glasses, which start at US$299 (S$401) 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.

On close inspection, I found the frames house two cameras, two micro speakers, three microphones and a Snapdragon computer processor chip.


Mike Isaac's dog Bruna, photographed by the reporter with the new glasses from Facebook and Ray-Ban in San Francisco on Sept 8, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

To preempt privacy concerns, a small indicator light flickers on when the glasses are recording, notifying people that they are being photographed or filmed.

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 a few moments on my hike to test out the glasses, I could just make out that vision of the future that Facebook executives were so excited about.

On a hike, 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.


Trees in the Presidio in San Francisco, photographed with the new glasses from Facebook and Ray-Ban on Sept 8, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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.