Facebook’s smart glasses are here. They’re made by Ray-Ban, which means they look stylish, and as far as features go, they’re on par with many “smart glasses” currently on the market, with built-in cameras and speakers. Facebook is the biggest name to attempt smart glasses for consumers in years, and they probably have the best shot at pulling it off. But the glasses aren’t really smart, and the fact that Facebook is behind them means there’s a whole lot more than style to consider before buying.
The $299 Ray-Ban Stories (notice how Facebook is conspicuously missing from the name) are a 2021 version of Snap’s Spectacles. They have common smart glasses features, including two 5-MP cameras on each hinge, a three-microphone array, built-in speakers, Bluetooth connectivity, and a touchpad. Whatever content you capture can be uploaded to your social media. We’ve seen all this before, multiple times. The most unique thing about them is that they’re powered by Facebook.
The Ray-Ban Stories are unsurprisingly devoid of Facebook branding—at least externally. Available in three styles—all variations of Ray-Ban’s iconic Wayfarers—there isn’t a single Facebook logo on the device. The most you see is their logo on the box. If you were wearing these on the street, it’s unlikely anyone would bat an eye. But make no mistake, Facebook’s DNA is deeply embedded into these glasses.
To start, the glasses require a Facebook account to use. (The same is also true for virtual reality headsets from Facebook-owned Oculus.) The voice-control command to begin recording is, “Hey Facebook.” The content you capture can be uploaded to a standalone app called Facebook View. What you have is a product that’s Ray-Ban on the outside, Facebook on the inside. And it’s a product that can be worn anywhere, anytime, without anyone knowing.
Facebook isn’t beating around the bush with Ray-Ban Stories. It knows what its reputation for privacy is. The company’s product marketing says it was built with privacy in mind, and there’s even a microsite breaking down all the things you can and cannot do with the glasses. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Facebook View, the app where you import photos and videos, is a standalone app.
- Content is encrypted on the device.
- There’s a white LED light to signal that you’re recording in public.
- You have to press a button or issue a voice command to capture content.
- Anything you capture will not be used for personalized ads. If you upload that content to another app it’s subject to that app’s privacy terms.
- You can opt in to sharing data like “the number of images you capture, time spent taking videos, or average length of videos.”
- If you lose the glasses and someone else tries to pair them, all previously recorded content will be deleted.
- There’s a power switch on the device (yes, they’re serious about this one).
The company also reportedly consulted with privacy organizations and experts while developing the glasses, though not all of their feedback was implemented in the final device. Also, as pointed out by New York Times tech reporter Ryan Mac on Twitter, one of the privacy experts Facebook’s trotting out to defend the device works for an organization funded by Facebook. The privacy safeguards are clearly real, but privacy is only half the problem. The protections primarily deal with the privacy of your content and have nothing to do with another person’s privacy and their right to not be recorded.
Facebook says that gestures like raising your hand to press the capture button, voice commands, and the white LED light should be enough to signal to bystanders that something is going on. There are also some tips about privacy etiquette on the Ray-Ban Stories site that advises users to respect other people’s preferences, obey the law, and not use the glasses in private spaces like locker rooms and public bathrooms. Taping over the LED light is also against Facebook’s terms of services. But this is contingent on the user not being a total jerk, and if there’s one thing we all know, there will always be jerks who don’t follow rules. Multiple write-ups of the device noted that the LED light was too discreet or dim to be truly effective. As a result, it was very easy for some to covertly record people without them noticing.
Bottom line: There’s no hardware kill function if a bad actor decides to ignore all these lovely tips on how to use the Ray-Ban Stories as Facebook intends you to. If you tape over the LED, it’ll still operate.
There’s also no protecting Ray-Ban Stories owners from getting clocked in the face by someone who doesn’t take kindly to being recorded. It’s an infamous story by now, but back in 2014, a woman wearing Google Glass walked into a bar and was attacked. The reason? The other patrons didn’t want their privacy violated. The New York Times quotes Jeremy Greenberg, the aforementioned privacy expert who works for an organization funded by Facebook, as saying that Facebook is “not naïve to the fact that other smart glasses have failed in the past,” but that “the public’s expectations of privacy have changed since the days of previous smart glasses releases.”
But have they? On some level, we all know that we’re being recorded at all times. We understand that living in the modern world means nothing is truly private unless you go off the grid. That doesn’t mean we don’t cherish the semblance of privacy. In a Ray-Ban Stories marketing video, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the glasses’ LED light is more than what smartphones offer to indicate they’re recording. That’s misleading. A phone is a device we know can record you. You see a phone, and you implicitly understand what it can do and the body language associated with covert recording. But these smart glasses are nearly indistinguishable from ordinary glasses. If someone wants to use them for nefarious means, they’ll find a way to do it. Another sobering thought: We don’t know all the ways these can be abused yet. Facebook doesn’t either.
No amount of assurance is going to erase or even ease privacy concerns. That’s going to take a massive cultural shift. These glasses need to give us a killer reason why we’d trade our collective privacy—or the illusion of it—for the ability to snap a 2014-quality video.
Any speculation of what Facebook’s glasses may eventually be capable of—mixed reality shopping, informational overlays, virtual meetings—is fanfiction at this point. The Ray-Ban Stories have middling cameras and speakers, and that’s it. When Facebook waxes lyrical on the future of AR, they’re not talking about these glasses.
Real AR glasses have, and do, exist. You just typically find them in the enterprise space (see: Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2). Other headsets are still largely experimental and not ready for prime time, like the Magic Leap or Microsoft HoloLens 2. And the main thing holding AR glasses back is that no one has proved why we would want to use these things instead of a phone, aside from living out our sci-fi dreams.
The original pair of Bose Frames was perhaps the most interesting example of what AR glasses are currently capable of. Those didn’t have a camera, but they did have a fledging ecosystem of audio-only AR apps. And then a year later, Bose shut down its audio AR division. Focals by North, another defunct pair of smart glasses, also had neat functions—they could alert you to your text messages, call you an Uber, and navigate you using AR. They failed, too.
The problem is these gadgets don’t fit into modern life yet. There’s no ecosystem of apps that work well. Informational overlays displayed onto your environment will likely require a tethered connection to your phone. It’ll be a while before anyone figures out how to make stylish smart glasses that don’t need a phone to operate. On the technical side, we haven’t even figured out a good way to solve the problem of ambient light washing out projected images.
Aside from a handful of hyper-specific situations, you always have something else that works better. Maybe influencers feel the need to snap cool videos on the go, but a GoPro can also do that—and with better picture quality. GoPros are also easy to carry around and hardier than a pair of sunglasses. For most people, a smartphone will suffice. Visual AR text notifications might be neat at first, but that gets old real fast. Smartwatches handle phone-free notifications more smoothly and are less distracting. You could make a case for these audio smart glasses replacing headphones, but frankly, the battery life isn’t there for all-day wear and the sound quality is middling. Your ANC earbuds are cheaper and do it better.
There are numerous hurdles to clear before we get the AR glasses most people envision. The Ray-Ban Stories aren’t going to convince most people that AR is something they need right away. Then again, they’re not supposed to. If I were an idealist, I’d say these glasses are the bridge to an AR future. If I were a skeptic, I’d say these glasses are meant to ease society into the concept of always-on, always-recording smart eyewear. Facebook has expressed interest in baking facial recognition into a pair of glasses. What could possibly go wrong?