Saturday, July 13, 2024

Facebook Goes All In On Smart Glasses

The technology that makes smart glasses possible has existed for several years now. Those of you with long memories will recall Google trying and failing to get “Google Glass” off the ground, eventually giving up on the idea because the glasses were too bulky, and it couldn’t find a practical use for the hardware. Just because it’s possible to project digital images onto “smart” glasses and have content appear directly in front of people’s eyes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Officially, Google hasn’t given up on the idea. In practice, it’s been a long time since they announced anything new about it. That apparently hasn’t put Facebook off giving it a try.

It’s been a week of revelations and announcements for Facebook, with news ranging from the expectation that financial results for the second half of the year will be weaker than they were in the first half to the bizarre declaration that Mark Zuckerberg wants the world of the future to exist inside a “Facebook metaverse.” Buried among all that news was a startling announcement about smart glasses. The company is ready to bring them to the market, and we’re not just talking about any old glasses. Facebook has partnered with Ray-Ban to turn the idea into a reality. 

It’s not a secret that Facebook has been working on smart glasses for several years, but few people outside the company suspected that they’re as close to being ready for release as they are. While Zuckerberg stopped short of announcing a release date, he didn’t rule out the possibility that they might be available to buy before the end of the year. He might be hoping to get them to the market ahead of Christmas 2021, for which they’d be likely to be a popular gift choice for tech enthusiasts. However, those tech enthusiasts would want to know more about the specifications and features of the product before placing orders. While Zuckerberg spoke with great pride about the invention, he was light on details.

Aside from knowing that they’re about ready to launch, all we know about what they’re capable of is that they’ll allow their owners to do “some neat things.” Those are Zuckerberg’s words, not ours. We know more about what they won’t do than what they will. When discussing the idea in the past, Facebook has said that the glasses will come without an integrated display and won’t be classed as “augmented reality” hardware. That sits at odds with the company’s bold vision of a future where we all go to work in an augmented reality universe, but it might be for the best for now. It’s been experiencing issues with its Oculus Quest 2 headsets recently and has had to recall a batch from stores because the materials used in their construction have given people skin rashes. The issue is thought to have affected only a handful of users but was considered serious enough to temporarily withdraw the whole range.

Without an integrated display, it’s hard to picture what it is about the smart glasses that will make them “smart.” One possibility is that they’ll have a microphone rather than a display and will allow you to perform voice-operated tasks by connecting to your mobile phone. Another is that they’ll interact with an app on your phone to let you perform tasks like tint the glasses, although that seems more of a gimmick than a desirable piece of next-generation technology. Zuckerberg sees the product as a “step toward” augmented reality glasses than the arrival of the AR era, but how big a step is something that we’ll apparently have to wait a little longer to find out.

Facebook has a mixed history when it steps outside its comfort zone. Its biggest successes (aside from the social media website) have come by acquiring apps and services that were already successful independently, like Instagram and WhatsApp. Other initiatives, like a Facebook-hosted online slots page designed to provide all the services and attractions of an online slots website within the confines of Facebook, fell flat. If Facebook hasn’t been able to tempt online slots players away from with its own brand of slots, it might struggle to tempt people into buying smart glasses that don’t have a clearly defined purpose. Far more information will have to be released ahead of schedule if the company doesn’t want the concept to become an expensive failure. If this was a bet placed on one of the company’s online slots, we wouldn’t fancy its chances of success.

Although we still tend to think of smart glasses as an idea for the future, Facebook won’t be the first big company to bring such a product to the market. Snapchat’s (extremely niche) Snapchat Spectacles already exist. So do Amazon’s Echo Frames. The reason you haven’t seen hundreds of people wearing them out on the street is that the idea hasn’t caught on yet. As was the case with Google Glass, the issue is one of practicality and purpose. People haven’t yet been given a compelling reason to wear a heavier-than-normal pair of glasses just because they come with an internet connection. Facebook better have something up its sleeve if it wants to change that trend.

Aside from lacking technical details and specifications, Facebook is yet to declare what the existence and release of the new glasses will mean for its previous augmented reality glasses. A prototype product called Project Aria AR was revealed to the world in September 2020 and came with an integrated display. It’s possible that they’re still in development and will eventually be released after the (presumably lighter) Ray-Ban glasses have hit the market. Zuckerberg might want to test the water with “slightly” smart glasses before pushing “fully” smart glasses on his audience. That remains to be seen.

The unanswered question in this story is whether the average person is happy with the idea of walking around wearing what is, in effect, a computer connected to Facebook attached to their face for a significant portion of each day. Our answer to that would be “no” based on how these things have gone in the past, but perhaps this time things will be different. We suspect that we’ll know by the beginning of 2022.

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