Less than a month and a half ago, Mark Zuckerberg revealed his “metaverse” ambition, a concept coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a kind of three-dimensional virtual reality version of the internet. The Facebook CEO imagines a future where social media weaves itself into the real world through wearable technology and earlier this week the company tried its hand at internet-connected smart glasses by launching Ray-Ban Stories.
Created in partnership with Ray-Ban’s parent company the augmented-reality spectacles will allow wearers to listen to music, take calls, or capture photos and short videos and share them across Facebook’s services using a companion app – with an ultimate aim “to help build the metaverse” according to Zuckerberg.
Facebook is known for its social network, but it has pumped huge money into AR and VR projects. The company spent $2 billion on acquiring Oculus, which develops its VR products. In 2019, it launched Facebook Horizon, an invitation-only immersive environment where users can mingle and chat in a virtual space with a cartoon avatar through Oculus headsets. And now it’s giving a major push to AR-led smart glasses – one of the biggest area in wearables that is largely untapped.
Needless to say, wearable technologies such as the smartwatch, wristbands and ear-worn devices are already in vogue in recent years, but previous attempts to launch smart glasses (think about the ill-fated Google Glass) have ended in disappointment. So why is Facebook testing the water with its new smart glasses?
Why is Facebook testing the water?
Rupantar Guha, Associate Project Manager for Thematic Research at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, believes that Facebook’s first-generation smart glasses are a cautious move to test the waters before rivals such as Apple enter the market.
While Facebook’s product will likely be similar to Snap’s Spectacles 3, the company must deliver compelling audio and video experiences if it is to make waves in the consumer smart glasses market, which GlobalData estimates will be worth $565m by 2030, up from $70m in 2020.
“Widespread adoption will depend on the device’s usability and price. Presumably, the lack of AR capabilities will help keep prices down. However, while the artificial intelligence (AI) based voice assistant, spatial audio and a built-in camera will go a long way, they should really be adding in audio experiences such as fitness coaching, navigation, news, language translation and music streaming to the Frey if they want to appeal to the broader consumer base that do not use Facebook’s social media services,” says Guha.
He adds, “Smart glasses are still a niche market as there are currently only a few things the devices can do better than smartphones.
A concern over privacy
But like all Facebook products, Ray-Ban Stories raise a lot of questions about privacy. Many also perceive smart glasses as a threat to privacy due to built-in cameras and microphones that can record video and audio.
For example, Amnesty International’s tech wing, Amnesty Tech, said on Twitter that, “Facebook is a surveillance advertising company whose business relies on exploiting our data and invading our privacy on a vast scale. Now it has teamed up with Ray-Ban to sell camera glasses. @ray_ban have you thought this through?”
Zuckerberg tries to waive these concerns in a video posted on his Facebook page, and highlights that the smart glasses have a recording indicator light and a power button. In the video, he said that by default the glasses “collect data that’s needed to make your glasses work and function, like your battery status to alert you when your battery is low, your email address and password for your Facebook login to verify it’s really you when you log into the Facebook View app.”
Facebook also published a guide outlining how to use the glasses responsibly, for example turning them off in private spaces like public bathrooms and not using them for illegal actions like harassment or capturing sensitive information, such as PIN codes.
“We’ve believed for a long time that glasses are going to be an important part of building the next computing platform,” said Zuckerberg .
However, Guha warns that Facebook will be under regulatory scrutiny to prevent any misuse of user data. “The success of its smart glasses is vital for Facebook’s growing wearable tech ambitions. Facebook’s plans for AR smart glasses and smartwatches will hinge on whether it can develop a variety of experiences for potential users and its handling of data privacy issues,” he says.
Lessons for competitors
A consumer prototype for the Google Glass was discontinued in 2016, although the company has been selling an Enterprise Edition. The product is now mostly used by workers in logistics and manufacturing to provide hands-free access to information via a small screen in the upper corner of the right lens.
Microsoft’s HoloLens is on the market and is mainly targeted at industrial customers. By presenting holograms alongside the real-world environment, users could receive assistance in a range of situations – from surgery to remodeling a car.
Apple meanwhile has been filing patents for AR technology for more than a decade, with a range of such features already available on iPad and iPhone.
“AR is big and profound,” said Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, back in 2017. “And this is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it.”
Apple Glasses aren’t expected to launch anytime soon, with some analysts suggesting the device won’t arrive before 2023. Amazon is another company with a smart glasses range, although the Echo Frames lack any visual features and instead allow customers to access the Alexa voice assistant.
The global market of smart wearables is projected to reach shipments of 776.23 million units by 2026. And, despite the pandemic, 2020 saw 266.5 million units of wearables being shipped out to customers.
The boom in the wearable market has been largely linked to its demand by highly connected consumers today. Factors such as internet connectivity, data-driven analytics, changing lifestyles as well as the rise in remote work and increased interest in health monitoring during the COVID-19 pandemic have been driving the market.
In the near future, a lot of companies will try to muscle in to this market, potentially upgrading existing specs or launching entirely new product lines.