Innovation Monitor: Innovation on your face — a new wave of Smart Glasses
Innovation Monitor: Innovation on your face — a new wave of Smart Glasses
Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.
News about Facebook is seemingly everywhere these days. We recently covered the importance of open research and the work of NYU researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy. I highly recommend working through the Wall Street Journal’s five piece Facebook Files series published this week. It offers a deep-dive into the company’s organizational and algorithmic challenges, and a case for accountability: “The documents offer perhaps the clearest picture thus far of how broadly Facebook’s problems are known inside the company, up to the chief executive himself.”
In this week’s edition, we’re exploring the other side of Facebook news: The launch of Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories. A pair of smart glasses in the tradition of Snap Spectacles and Google Glass, these high-tech sunnies are priced at $299 and allow wearers to record and share images and short videos, listen to music, and take calls. As Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times put it, “Apple and Facebook are coming for your face”. This time around, the tech community is ready and responding, discussing and raising questions on the product’s accompanying privacy, permissions, and societal challenges. We’ll explore Xiaomi’s smart glasses play, consider all the smart glass along the way, .
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Erica Matsumoto Ray-Ban Stories
Back in September 2019, we learned that Facebook Reality Labs was quietly working with Ray-Ban parent company Luxottica on a project code-named Orion — a pair of AR glasses with a planned release date of 2023–2025. In the interim, they’ve released their first generation of smart glasses, Ray-Ban Stories.
The $299 device don’t overlay the world with news feeds or live streams (not this generation, anyway), but instead act like a combination of Alexa and Snapchat Spectacles. You can speak to the Facebook Assistant and command it to take photos or videos (with dual 5MP cameras) or make phone calls. Media captured gets saved to an app called Facebook View.
Like Spectacles, the device is positioned as a stepping stone towards comfortable AR wearables, and more generally, a step closer to the next computing paradigm. But enough with the rhetoric. Has Facebook has learned from past breaches and mistakes and designed Ray-Ban Stories with privacy in mind? Bigger Considerations
To warn other you’re capturing them, there’s an easily-covered white LED on the side that lights up when you start snapping. But ultimately, Facebook is distancing itself from associating the glasses as exclusively tied to the company’s ecosystem. Facebook said it consulted with the “Future of Privacy Forum, National Network to End Domestic Violence, and the LGBT Technology Partnership,” during the devices design, as noted by CNET.
You can share media with platforms outside the Facebook umbrella, and the branding makes it look more like “a Ray-Ban product rather than a Facebook one, with classic styling rather than a high-tech look,” The Conversation pointed out.
“The company is trying to sell us on the concept of ‘smart glasses,’ rather than ‘Facebook glasses.’ But if video Ray-Bans become mainstream, who knows what other data-intensive gadgets are lurking just around the corner?”
Here’s another important consideration from anthropologist S.A. Applin in her MIT Tech Review post:
“Glasses provide different social cues than smartphones. We can tell who is on a phone because we can see the phone in people’s hands. Figuring out who is wearing Facebook’s glasses will be more challenging. In part, the Google Glass experiment failed because Glass looked different from normal eyewear, and we could easily identify and avoid those wearing it. But Ray-Ban Stories look a lot like normal Ray-Bans.” Xiaomi’s Play
This month we learned from Ars Technica that the world’s biggest smartphone maker, Xiaomi, was working on their own Smart Glasses, a concept device that looks like it’s only a few steps from production. There’s a single 5MP camera in a corner and, unlike in Spectacles or Stories, a display system in the other. According to Ars author Ron Amadeo:
“The display system is wild — a microLED display fires into a series of lenses and then into a waveguide lens for the right eye only. Cramming a microLED into a pair of glasses apparently wasn’t easy — Xiaomi says the chip measures 2.4 mm x 2.02 mm, with individual pixels sized at 4 μm. The big compromise is that the microLED system is actually monochrome: the glasses can only display green, so you’ll feel right at home if you ever used a computer in the 1980s.”
Powering the Xiaomi Smart Glasses is a quad-core ARM chip. There’s a touchpad on the side with several buttons, and the mic is hidden in the nose pad. Users would use the XiaoAI Assistant to speak commands.
“Again, it’s hard to tell how much of this is real or if Xiaomi wants to sell a new device. But no pie-in-the-sky concepts are being pushed here. The glasses are actually disappointingly realistic and limited, which makes us think they really exist somewhere in Xiaomi’s labs.”
The Smart Graveyard Hype propelled the Google Glass to the stratosphere — Time named it one of its Best Inventions of the Year, Vogue had a 12-page story on it, presidents around the world tested them, as did “Oprah, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Bill Murray,” according to the NY Times.
But the product was barely a prototype, and already had dissenters inside Google. Still, Sergey Brin pushed for a public release, flashy demos, and exclusivity. When tech reviewers finally got their hands on the $1,500 Explorer Edition, they weren’t very happy.
Concerns about ubiquitous surveillance — propelled by stories like the Seattle bar that banned Glass use and the Stop the Cyborgs group — didn’t help. Google had to eventually retire the project, but “it was an admission of defeat not by design, but by culture.”
Glass wasn’t the only consumer-grade AR failure (vs. something more developer-centric like Magic Leap). At the start of 2020, Bose shut down its AR program. “Bose AR didn’t become what we envisioned,” a spokesman told Protocol. Bose had been quietly distancing itself from its AR ambitions during the months leading up to the announcement.
SVP John Gordon, a staunch supporter of audio AR at Bose, left the previous summer, and most of the AR team left that spring. Bose’s exit arrived at a time when AR startups were facing perilous time: In 2019, ODG and Darqi both shut down.
Whether Ray-Ban Stories flops or not, and ends up in the AR graveyard, doesn’t seem to be a problem, however: “For a company as wealthy as Facebook, there isn’t much downside [since Facebook will learn what does and doesn’t work for consumers]. It’s still kind of a Wild West right now. Nobody’s had a breakthrough product,” said Julie Ask, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester in a CNET piece. This Week in Innovation History
September 18th, 1851: The first edition of the NY Times is sold.
The paper, called the New York Daily Times at its launch, was a collaboration between the journalist Henry Raymond and two financiers, George Jobes and Edward Wesley. The first edition was four pages long and sold for a penny. The paper changed its name to The New York Times in 1857.
The NYT tells the story of its founding in great detail in this piece written for its 150th anniversary.