Skip to main content

Everything spy movies get right (and wrong) about smart glasses

Obviously James Bond gets a bit of help from movie magic, but real-life smart glasses can do more than you might expect.

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Graphic of spy wearing smart glasses that depicts various spy-like activities.
Smart glasses in spy movies aren’t as outlandish as you might think.
Illustration: Kyle Ellingson for The Verge

Hollywood has done a lot to shape our perceptions of smart glasses. It’s why people are wary of rumored augmented and virtual reality devices from Apple and Meta. But whether it’s James Bond, Tony Stark, or Ethan Hunt, I’m willing to bet that when you hear “smart glasses,” you’re picturing Ray-Bans that discreetly (or perhaps not so discreetly) overlay secret information in front of the wearer’s vision. Perhaps the spy in question uses them as a form of X-ray vision to scan a crowded room for a hidden object.

As cool as it is on film, I think we all know that’s mostly a convenient storytelling trick — a quick exposition dump that simultaneously conveys that our hero is tech-savvy. In real life, these kinds of smart glasses are chunky, easily foiled by bright ambient lighting, and riddled with wonky UIs. Fiction enables certain artistic liberties with the laws of good gadgetry, but you’d be surprised. For everything spy movies get wrong about smart glasses, there’s a heck of a lot that they get right, too. I went through some recent spy flicks; here’s a look at where they hit the nail on the head — and some areas where real-life smart glasses are still playing catch-up.

Discretion is the better part of espionage

One thing spy movies understand better than tech companies is discretion.

You would never, ever see James Bond slinking around in a first-gen pair of Google Glass. (For chrissake, the man wears Tom Ford and drives an Aston Martin.) You might be able to imagine Q donning a dorky pair of Vuzix Blades, but through the years, Agent 007 has stuck to high-end fashion brands like Persol, Calvin Klein, and Barton Perreira. The nerdiest thing you ever see Bond wear is a pair of binocular glasses while on a stakeout in The Living Daylights.

It’s not just Bond, either. Eggsy in the Kingsman series might be a spoof of Bond, but he wears Cutler and Gross glasses that project holographic images for the society’s version of Zoom meetings. Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt has an unhealthy attachment to exploding Oakleys, but you likely wouldn’t think twice about any of the brands mentioned thus far. You would probably do a double take at someone wearing a pair of Epson Moverio smart glasses. And take a gander at these real-life spy glasses used by the CIA in the 1970s. They look like an average pair of glasses, but the arms concealed a poisonous pill. If captured, a spy could simply chew on the arm to discreetly release the poison.

Upside-down pair of glasses where you can see a pill hidden in the arm.
These are real-life glasses that the CIA used in the 1970s that concealed cyanide pills in the arms.
Image: H. Keith Melton Collection at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC.

The most advanced smart glasses right now — the ones that can really tap into the powers of augmented reality — struggle to gain a foothold among everyday consumers for the same reasons that spies wouldn’t be caught dead in them. They’re too noticeable. You invite suspicion if you wear them out in public.

It’s the exact reason (other than price) Google Glass wearers became known as glassholes. For better or worse, glasses and sunglasses are functional medical devices and a way to express your personal style. Some folks might love the futuristic vibe of advanced smart glasses, but most people would rather draw attention for looking good. Hence why the smart sunglasses Peter Parker inherits from Tony Stark in Spider-Man: Far From Home are a stylish pair of blue-tinted aviators. (Also, kudos to Marvel for acknowledging the ambient light issue by making them sunglasses.)

Man looking at phone while wearing Ray-Ban Stories
Bond may deign to wear the Ray-Ban Stories because they are, at the very least, discreet.
Photo by Amanda Lopez for The Verge

That said, some tech companies seem to have learned this lesson. Meta’s Ray-Ban Stories glasses look like your average pair of Ray-Bans, albeit with thicker arms. And yet, they’re capable of taking short videos — a very spy-like use case. Likewise, every iteration of the Bose Frames looked like normal sunglasses as well, as did the Razer Anzu. Just looking at them, you wouldn’t necessarily know they could pair to your phone for calls, listening to music, and even interacting with a digital assistant.

The now-defunct Focals by North were perhaps the closest any consumer smart glasses got to what you see in the movies — but even they were clunkier and clumsier to use in real life than what you see on film. The thing about spies is every Bond has a Q to hand him customized gear. They fit immediately, and Bond learns how to use them in the minute or so Q takes to explain how they work. The Focals required in-person 3D facial scans, a separate fitting appointment, hours of fiddling around to pair glasses to your phone, random connectivity issues, workarounds involving multiple phone numbers for texting, and a ring-like controller that acted as a mouse to navigate menus.

Video calls, drones, and voice assistants

Whether it’s seeing information others around you can’t or issuing commands without lifting a finger, spy films correctly depict how smart glasses can be an invisible source of information and communication. Looking at a phone or watch is an observable behavior. It’s a lot harder to tell if someone’s watching a video feed on a seemingly ordinary pair of glasses.

Take this scene from Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It might seem outlandish, but teleconferencing on a pair of glasses is actually something you could do today. Just perhaps not quite as smoothly. (If you can’t watch a video right now, Eggsy gets an inopportune video call on his smart glasses while meeting his girlfriend’s parents. They can’t see what he sees on the glasses — a bomb about to explode — and confusion ensues.)

The Bose Frames, Razer Anzu, Vuzix Blade, and generally, any pair of smart glasses with Bluetooth, speaker, and microphone are capable of taking calls. I know because I’ve done it. I could walk into a drugstore wearing my Bose Frames and have my spouse call me, tell me what to buy, and direct me to the correct aisle without anyone knowing. And like Eggsy in this scene, I run the risk of looking odd since I’d be talking to thin air without a familiar, visible cue like earbuds.

You might think the video portion of Eggsy’s call is also far-fetched, but... it’s complicated. Vuzix actually has Zoom, Skype, and Webex video call support for some of its smart glasses. Likewise, the Google Glass Enterprise Edition had Google Meet support so remote supervisors could see exactly what workers in the field were seeing. In reality, wonky connectivity, ambient light, and a small viewing area currently make this more troublesome than whipping out your phone. But just because it’s clunkier in real life doesn’t mean this scene is impossible with today’s consumer-accessible technology.

I’m going to use Spider-Man: Far From Home as an example again, not only because it’s a popular movie with accessible clips but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of how a person can use smart glasses to glean information and issue a command in plain sight. In this scene, Peter Parker puts on a pair of smart sunglasses and instantly sees everything his classmates are texting. (Technically, Peter isn’t a spy, but he sure is doing spy-like stuff here.) While you’ll still have to snoop on people’s texts the old-fashioned way, Peter’s EDITH glasses illustrate why facial recognition, voice assistant use, and drone control are three use cases that are currently being pursued in real life.

Using facial recognition on smart glasses might sound dystopian, but it’s technically already being done. In 2020, Vuzix announced it had partnered with Dubai-based software developer NNTC to embed its AI-powered facial recognition system on the Vuzix Blade smart glasses, which contain an eight-megapixel camera. The idea was to enable law enforcement and security to scan crowds to “match faces against a database of violators, missing people or suspects.” When detected, the wearer purportedly gets an alert on the glasses.

Meanwhile, Amazon Echo Frames users can use the glasses as an Alexa device. Alexa isn’t nearly as smart as EDITH, so the applications are much more limited. Siri and Google Assistant can’t commit to air strikes on your romantic rival, but you can control your smart home, send messages, or get answers to random trivia on smart glasses right now.

All the physical controls for the Echo Frames are on the right stem.
Even on normal-looking smart glasses like the Amazon Echo Frames, the chunky temples are a dead giveaway.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

And while Siri and Alexa can’t go controlling drones, Epson’s Moverio glasses have been capable of drone control since 2012. The Moverio BT-300 was a DJI-certified accessory that let you view your drone’s video feed and flight statistics in real time. Similarly, Vuzix Blade glasses can also help operate DJI drones. It’s not the same as controlling a missile, but drones can be equally unsettling from a privacy perspective.

So no, a super smart AI assistant can’t recognize a person through your smart glasses and then control a drone to spy on said person. Yet. As with video calling, the tech isn’t at a point where it’d be called seamless, but the individual elements are there. The point is Hollywood is taking what we know to exist and extrapolating cool but kind of terrifying ways smart glasses can be used (or misused) in the not-so-distant future.

Smart glasses are only cool on spies

There’s a reason smart glasses tend to feature in spy and superhero flicks — heroes are the only ones we trust them with.

It’s cool when you watch James Bond use smart glasses in his quest to foil yet another evil genius’s dastardly plot. It’s not quite as cool that Tony Stark entrusted a teenager with smart glasses capable of launching missiles — but you forgive Peter Parker because he’s a hero, and he eventually uses them in the right way. But it’s downright terrifying if Joe Schmoe down the street uses smart glasses to potentially invade your privacy.

That unease is partly why Google Glass Explorer Edition crashed and burned, even though sci-fi and spy films portray smart glasses as a cool gadget. But as they say, real life ain’t the movies. You won’t see consumer protection agencies or privacy advocates in a Bond film, but they exist in the real world. Films also benefit from visual effects artists to patch the gap between current and future tech. Not to mention, smart glasses still face numerous hurdles, like the lack of a real killer app, eye fatigue, exorbitant pricing, limited styles, crappy battery life, and chunky, uncomfortable designs. For now, if you want to see really cool smart glasses, you’re still going to need a bit of movie magic.