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Facebook on your face

Hands-on with Facebook and Ray-Ban’s first pair of smart glasses

Starting Thursday, the first pair of smart glasses made by Facebook and Ray-Ban are going on sale for $299. They’re called Ray-Ban Stories, and you’ll be able to find them pretty much anywhere Ray-Bans are sold, including LensCrafters and Sunglasses Hut stores.

The frames feature two-front facing cameras for capturing video and photos. They sync with a companion camera roll app called Facebook View, where clips can be edited and shared to other apps on your phone (not just Facebook’s own). There’s a physical button on the glasses for recording, or you can say “Hey Facebook, take a video” to control them hands-free.

And, perhaps most importantly, they look and feel like regular glasses.

With their core ability of taking photos and videos, Ray-Ban Stories are essentially a sleeker version of Snapchat’s Spectacles, which first debuted in 2016 to a lot of hype that quickly fizzled. These Ray-Bans don’t have displays in the lenses, like the latest Spectacles that were unveiled earlier this year. However, speakers on both sides of the frame can play sound from your phone over Bluetooth, allowing you to take a call or listen to a podcast without pulling your phone out. A touchpad built into the side of the frame lets you change the volume or play and pause what you’re hearing.

Ray-Ban Stories are the first product in a multiyear partnership between Facebook and the European eyewear conglomerate EssilorLuxottica, Ray-Ban’s parent company. While they’re limited in what they can do, Ray-Ban Stories are the most normal-looking, accessible pair of smart glasses to hit the market so far. Both companies also see them as a step toward more advanced augmented reality glasses that overlay graphics onto the real world.

After testing a pair of Ray-Ban Stories for the past week, I’m impressed with the build quality and how well they work. Initial pairing was easy, and syncing footage from the glasses back to the View app took only a few seconds through a Wi-Fi connection the glasses initiate.

The dual 5-megapixel cameras can capture just over three dozen, 30-second video clips or roughly 500 photos before the on-device memory fills up. A physical button on the top of the right side of the frame lets you manually capture if you’d rather not use the “Hey Facebook” wake phrase. (Facebook says its voice assistant only listens for that phrase when turned on and that its functionality is limited to starting recordings.)

A light on the inside of the glasses gives you a range of information: green for fully charged, orange for low battery, blue for pairing mode, red for dead battery or overheating, and white for a capture error. A separate, front-facing white light next to the right camera illuminates whenever the glasses are recording.

Facebook says the glasses take about an hour to fully charge and that the battery will last for roughly six hours with intermittent use. The companion View app shows a live readout of the battery when the glasses are paired. My battery drained by about 20 percent during heavy use for an hour.

The carrying case that comes with the glasses is sturdy, with a leather-like material and built-in charger that can refill the battery three times. The case itself charges via a USB-C cable that comes in the box.

I expected the speakers on both sides of the frame to be soft and hollow, but they were surprisingly loud and full. I can see the audio playback over Bluetooth coming in handy for taking phone calls or maybe listening to podcasts, but I’d prefer to use proper headphones for listening to music. The audio doesn’t sound specifically targeted at the wearer’s ears, making it easy to overhear when you’re standing next to someone wearing the glasses. The touchpad on the side of the frame is a welcome inclusion for volume adjustment.

A video I shot of my dog Otis with Ray-Ban Stories.

The cameras in the glasses are nowhere as high quality as the cameras on modern smartphones. Instead, Ray-Ban Stories are meant to be used in moments when your hands are occupied, or you want to capture something fleeting. Despite a teaser video recently posted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showing him out in the ocean with them on, the glasses aren’t designed to get wet.

The companion View app is bare-bones, serving as a camera roll for the glasses with basic editing capabilities. You can favorite clips and do minor touch-ups before sending footage to any app of your choice. During initial setup, it walks you through the privacy policy that asks to let Facebook collect data about how you use the glasses. A Facebook account is required to use them, but the company isn’t analyzing what you record and save in the View app to personalize ads to you.

The most compelling part of Ray-Ban Stories is the form factor. I’ve tried a bunch of smart glasses over the years, and these are by far the most comfortable. They weigh just a few grams heavier than normal Wayfarers. You’ll also be able to get them with prescription lenses (although my ability to test the glasses was limited since the pair Facebook sent me to try didn’t have my prescription and I don’t wear contacts).

The tech in the glasses is so hidden that it’s hard to tell there are cameras on them at all. The white recording light is also fairly dim, which could pose privacy concerns if people don’t realize the glasses are capturing photos or video.

As far as smart glasses go, Ray-Ban Stories are relatively affordable. They start at $299, with polarized lenses bringing the price to $329 and transition lenses costing $379. The price for adding a prescription varies based on the type of insurance. There are three main frame styles: Wayfarer, Round, and Meteor. In total there are 20 combinations of styles, colors, sizes, and lens types. They are initially being sold online and in stores in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Ireland, and Australia.

Facebook and Ray-Ban have a unique partnership that was formed at the highest levels.

The two companies first connected over two years ago when Luxottica’s chief wearable officer, Rocco Basilico, cold emailed Mark Zuckerberg asking to meet and discuss collaborating on smart glasses. Zuckerberg had publicly laid out Facebook’s aspiration to build AR glasses that could one day be as widely adopted as mobile phones. In a 2017 speech at Facebook’s developer conference, he showed the crowd a mockup of smart glasses that looked similar to Ray-Bans. Basilico was leading Luxottica’s own smart glasses efforts at the time and knew the eyewear giant needed to partner with a tech company to build them.

The deal was sealed when Zuckerberg flew to Milan in early 2019 to meet with Leonardo Del Vecchio, Luxottica’s founder and chairman. The two men agreed on the main proposition of the product. Facebook’s hardware executives traveled to tour Luxottica’s sprawling research center in northern Italy. Most of the features of the glasses (codenamed “Stella”) were decided during a weeklong workshop with top executives from both companies.

These Ray-Bans are decidedly not a Facebook-branded product, like its Oculus VR headset or Portal video calling device lineup. Facebook is supplying the tech and software that powers the glasses, while Ray-Ban oversees the design and sale of them. Both companies declined to discuss the financial details of the arrangement.

The goal of Ray-Ban Stories is to “lay the groundwork in the minds of consumers for the many, many, future products that we have to come in this space,” Facebook’s vice president of augmented and virtual reality, Andrew Bosworth, told me. It’s all part of Facebook’s goal to build what it thinks will be the next major computing platform after mobile phones. The company has over 10,000 people making consumer hardware, including a smartwatch it plans to help control its eventual AR glasses, which are internally codenamed “Orion.”

For Luxottica, the idea was to make smart glasses “not just a technological gadget, but something sexy,” according to Basilico. “We started with a sleek design and then we retrofitted the technology.”

Luxottica deciding to partner with Facebook could also be an offensive move to get ahead of the coming smart glasses boom. Snap began giving its first iteration of Spectacles with AR displays to a handful of developers and partners earlier this year. Apple is working on its own AR glasses that are still several years out. In June of last year, Google bought the AR glasses startup North, signaling its interest in re-entering the consumer market after Google Glass failed nearly a decade ago.

If AR glasses do eventually become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, traditional eyewear companies like Luxottica won’t want to be caught flat-footed, according to Christopher Grayson, an AR and smart glasses analyst who has closely studied the luxury eyewear market. “You don’t want to be the taxicab industry when Uber shows up.”

In doing camera-equipped smart glasses, Facebook has also found one of the last things to copy from Snapchat. Both Bosworth and Basilico didn’t mention Spectacles by name in our conversations, but it was clear that they think Ray-Ban Stories are going to be more universally appealing than Spectacles. And they’re probably right.

“Things that appear to be like this have hit the market before, but nothing in terms of having super accessible design and all the features around the hands-free assistant and the audio,” said Bosworth. (Snap approached Luxottica to partner in the early days of Spectacles but the talks ultimately went nowhere, according to people involved in the discussions.)

Facebook sent me a list of advocacy groups that it consulted with on privacy-related issues during the development of the glasses, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the LGBT Technology Partnership. The people I spoke with said Facebook took their feedback seriously, and that they overall feel comfortable with how the product is designed. But some agreed that the recording light should be more prominent.

There will likely be resistance by some to wearing cameras and microphones made by Facebook, regardless how well the glasses are designed. But given how Facebook’s brand is nowhere to be found on the glasses themselves, I’m not sure that stigma will significantly hinder interest in Ray-Ban Stories.

The broader implications of smart glasses are still unknown. If they are eventually adopted by lots of people, they could have a chilling effect on the comfort others have in public spaces or become a tool for stalking, Jeremy Greenberg, counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, told me. “You’re going to have people use this device in unintended ways.”

While it’s operating at a trust deficit, Facebook hopes that products like Ray-Ban Stories can avoid past mishaps and show that it’s keeping privacy in mind. “Getting products into market that start that dialogue with consumers around wearable glasses, it’s so important to us,” said Bosworth. “It’s important to do it in advance of the things to come.”

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