Facebook is taking a novel approach to its first smartwatch, which the company hasn’t confirmed publicly but currently plans to debut next summer. The device will feature a display with two cameras that can be detached from the wrist for taking pictures and videos that can be shared across Facebook’s suite of apps, including Instagram, The Verge has learned.
A camera on the front of the watch display exists primarily for video calling, while a 1080p, auto-focus camera on the back can be used for capturing footage when detached from the stainless steel frame on the wrist. Facebook is tapping other companies to create accessories for attaching the camera hub to things like backpacks, according to two people familiar with the project, both of whom requested anonymity to speak without Facebook’s permission.
The idea is to encourage owners of the watch to use it in ways that smartphones are used now. It’s part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to build more consumer devices that circumvent Apple and Google, the two dominant mobile phone platform creators that largely control Facebook’s ability to reach people.
The watch offers Facebook a way around Apple and Google
The planned device is Facebook’s first stab at releasing hardware specifically for the wrist, opening up another area of competition with Apple at a time when the two tech giants are already at odds on other fronts. Apple has aggressively positioned itself as a protector of privacy by limiting the kinds of data that apps like Facebook can collect, while Facebook has for years been besieged by scandals regarding its handling of user data. That dynamic could create an uphill battle for Facebook to convince people to buy its forthcoming Apple Watch competitor, especially since it plans to also position the watch as a fitness device with a heart rate monitor.
Facebook is working with the top wireless carriers in the US to support LTE connectivity in the watch, meaning it won’t need to be paired with a phone to work, and sell it in their stores, the people familiar with the matter said. The watch will come in white, black, and gold, and Facebook hopes to initially sell volume in the low six figures. That’s a tiny sliver of the overall smartwatch market — Apple sold 34 million watches last year by comparison, according to Counterpoint Research.
In future versions of the watch, Facebook is planning for it to serve as a key input device for its planned augmented reality glasses, which Zuckerberg thinks will one day be as ubiquitous as mobile phones. The company plans to use technology it acquired from CTRL-labs, a startup that has demonstrated armbands capable of controlling a computer through wrist movements.
Facebook aims to release the first version of the watch in the summer of 2022 and is already working on second and third generations for subsequent years. Employees have recently discussed pricing the device at roughly $400, but the price point could change. While it’s unlikely, Facebook could also scrap the watch altogether, as the device has yet to enter mass production or even be given an official name.
Facebook’s track record for making hardware is spotty
Facebook’s track record for making hardware is spotty. Its 2013 phone with HTC was a spectacular flop, and it has yet to disclose sales for its Oculus VR headsets or Portal video chat device for the home. In recent interviews, executives have said that sales for the Oculus Quest 2 headset have surpassed all previous Oculus headsets combined.
Facebook’s interest in building a smartwatch dates back at least a few years. It looked at acquiring Fitbit in 2019 before Google bought the fitness wearable maker. Since then, the social network has spent roughly $1 billion to develop the first version of its watch and has hundreds of people working on the effort, according to one of the people with knowledge of the matter.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment for this story. The Information earlier reported that Facebook was building a smartwatch with health and messaging features, but details about its cameras and other specifics in this story are new.
Using a custom version of Google’s Android operating system, Facebook plans to lean on its suite of apps and external partnerships to create compelling experiences for the watch, which will include a companion app for phones. Even still, Facebook’s wrist wearable resonating with people is far from guaranteed. Smartwatches with cameras on them have so far failed to catch on, and Apple has cornered the high end of the market already.