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From Google Glass to Ray-Ban Stories: The Rise, Fall and Return of the Smartglass

Editor, TRANSFIN.
Sep 20, 2021 7:45 AM 5 min read
Editorial

You’re jogging down the road and you see a pedestrian walking from the opposite direction. She’s wearing sunglasses - which is usual - but her face seems to be shifting left, right, up and down - very unusual. What’s more, she seems to be muttering to herself.

Before you conclude that she’s having a seizure and rush to call an ambulance, you might want to check if she’s wearing a pair of smartglasses.

What are Smartglasses?

Smartglasses are like computers that can be worn between your ears. An Apple Watch for your face, if you will. They look like a pair of normal glasses except that you can use them as a smartphone to perform a variety of tasks from reading incoming notifications to replying to texts via automated responses or voice-to-text software.

The most basic models can be used to read an e-book (hands-free) while newer models can function as standalone mobile phones with their own set of apps.

Okay, but why are we talking about this now?

 

Here’s Looking At You, Mark

The iPhone 13 Pro is not the only new tech gadget that was unveiled this month.

On September 9th, Facebook announced a new brand of smartglasses: Ray-Ban Stories, created with, you guessed it, Ray-Ban.

From Google Glass to Ray-Ban Stories: The Rise, Fall and Return of the SmartglassThe eyewear capitalises on the iconic Wayfarer design popularised by Ray-Ban, but also comes in two other designs: round and meteor. As such they look like a typical pair of sunglasses...except for the two cameras, two micro-speakers, three microphones, the Snapdragon computer processor chip, and the USB charging socket.

They have been marketed as “an authentic way to capture photos and video, share your adventures, and listen to music or take phone calls” .

Starting at $299 and available in 20 style combinations, the smartglasses are available for purchase online and in select retail stores in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland and Italy.

While Ray-Ban Stories is Facebook’s first smartglass product, they are not its first dabble with eyewear. They follow in the footsteps of Oculus, a subsidiary that is engaged in the VR headset business.

From Google Glass to Ray-Ban Stories: The Rise, Fall and Return of the SmartglassAs for the collaboration, it works well for both companies. Ray-Ban has been eager to get into the wearable technology market. And for Facebook, smartglasses are the first step to its metaverse pivot.

But wait, before we get into that - aren’t smartglasses a tried and tested (and failed) technology?

 

Been There, Seen That

When smartglasses first entered the mainstream market in the early 2010s, there were huge expectations.

But the concept failed to take off. The most (in)famous example was the ill-fated Google Glass (a product that Sergey Brin memorably introduced in 2012 while jumping out of an airplane). Public criticism of the Google Glass was instantaneous - it made the wearer look alien, it invited a host of privacy concerns, and its users were widely derided as “Glassholes” and even barred from some bars and restaurants.

The endeavour was such an embarrassing failure that Google stopped selling it to customers altogether (shifting its focus to businesses instead) and tried to delete all social media content relating to the product.

The next big smartglass venture was Spectacles, released in 2016 by Snapchat, which focused on recording short 10-second video clips. This venture, also, failed spectacularly (although, to be fair, this had more to do with some unwise and untimely business decisions by Snap).

There were other attempts at a market breakthrough. Most faltered or are still in the prototype stage. These include the Microsoft HoloLens (the hype around which fizzled out) and Intel’s Vaunt (now defunct).

 

Menlo Park Vision

Enter, Facebook. But what makes the company confident it can succeed where Google and Snap failed?

For one, it argues that “we’ve never had a design like this before” - that it is more focused on the fashion of eyewear than the tech inside the frames. This is somewhat true - these smartglasses don’t seek to become smartphone substitutes (yet), and they look exactly like typical Ray-Bans, and not the weird face-computers that the Google Glass was. Ergo, much easier to sell.

Second, Facebook opines that “the public’s expectations of privacy have changed since the days of previous smart glasses releases”. This is ambiguous - you can’t exactly measure the public’s privacy expectations. And even though Facebook’s smartglasses come with small LED lights that turn on when recording video, reviews have shown how this is not foolproof, that they can record surroundings even with those around not realising it. This invites a barrage of privacy concerns. (Moreover, the last company on Earth you’d trust to make the right decisions on user privacy would be Facebook.)

From Google Glass to Ray-Ban Stories: The Rise, Fall and Return of the SmartglassThird, Ray-Ban Stories will have significant backing from Faecbook’s warchest - it needs to succeed. Because these products are more than just Facebook’s attempt at placing a bet on the smartglass market. They are a part of the company’s broader pivot away from its traditional core business.

 

What Pivot?

Mr. Zuckerberg’s eagerness to sell wearable tech to consumers is not a recent obsession. He bought Oculus for $2.3bn in 2014. A year later, the acquisition of Surreal Vision, a British startup focusing on telepresence and mixed reality (the merging of real and virtual worlds), was completed. In 2016, Facebook bought The Eye Tribe, a Danish eye-tracking startup. And now, Ray-Ban Stories is entering the market.

These are not isolated developments. Together, they point to Facebook’s grand vision of transforming itself from a social media enterprise to a “metaverse company” . And for that vision to come to fruition, Facebook needs to build the requisite infrastructure. And just as importantly, it needs to convince consumers to buy such gadgets.

Thus, the Ray-Ban Stories smartglasses are but the first step in this grand plan to herald a future where the lines between virtual and actual reality collapse. Where consumers willingly wear technology instead of just using it. And where Facebook brings in the big bucks.

FIN.
 

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