Facebook launches 'Ray-Ban Stories' smart glasses amid privacy concerns

Early users have discovered the LED indicating recording can be simply taped over.
Early users have discovered the LED indicating recording can be simply taped over. Photo credit: Supplied

Facebook has launched its first set of smart glasses in a step toward its aim of offering true augmented-reality AR spectacles.

The glasses, which were created in partnership with Ray-Ban maker EssilorLuxottica, 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.

Facebook announced the glasses line is entitled 'Ray-Ban Stories' and start at NZ$465, but no release date has yet been announced for Aotearoa.

The social media giant, which has been criticised over its handling of user data, said it would not access the media used by its smart glasses customers without their consent.

The company also said it would not use the content of the photos or videos captured using the glasses and stored in the Facebook View app for personalising ads, and said the glasses would be an "ads-free experience".

The glasses include an optional virtual assistant so photos and videos can be captured hands-free through voice commands.

Facebook said an LED light on the glasses would show when the camera is on to make other people aware when a wearer is taking a photo or video.

It 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.

However, flaws in that system have already been identified by early users, including Buzzfeed News technology reporter Katie Notopoulos.

"Facebook is making camera glasses. They have an LED warning light so that bystanders know you are taking a video," she tweeted.

"I taped it over. A FB exec told me this is a violation of the terms of service of the glasses (oops)."

However, putting tape over the LED doesn't stop the camera working. In a larger piece reviewing the glasses, she broke down the concerns into one paragraph.

"TL;DR: The privacy features for the glasses wearer are decent; privacy features for the rest of the world? Not so much. The implications for our souls? Hopelessly unclear."

Wall Street Journal senior personal technology columnist Joanna Stern, in her review, detailed how she "spent the week being a total creeper and recording lots of people who didn't know until I told them".

Another tweet concluded "I also appreciate that Facebook consulted with privacy experts on this but seems like they didn't go as far as many would have liked."

Facebook, which reported revenue of about US$86 billion in 2020, makes most of its money from advertising but has invested heavily in virtual and augmented reality, developing hardware such as its Oculus VR headsets and working on wristband technologies to support augmented reality glasses.

The company's chief scientist said last year the company was five to 10 years away from being able to bring to market "true" AR glasses, which would superimpose virtual objects onto the wearer's view of the real world.

Major tech firms including Amazon.com, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Snap have raced to develop various smart glasses products, but early offerings like Google Glass proved difficult to sell to consumers put off by high price points and design issues.

Snap, which unveiled its smart Spectacles in 2016, this year launched AR glasses but they are not for sale and are offered only to AR creators. Snap's CEO, Evan Spiegel, said in 2019 that he expected it would be a decade before consumers widely adopted AR smart glasses.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced the company was setting up a team to work on building the metaverse, a shared virtual environment which it is betting will be the successor to the mobile internet.

"We've believed for a long time that glasses are going to be an important part of building the next computing platform," said Zuckerberg in a video posted on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile the company is developing a machine learning chip to handle tasks such as content recommendation to users, The Information reported, citing two people familiar with the project.

The company has developed another chip for video transcoding to improve the experience of watching recorded and live-streamed videos on its apps, according to the report.

Facebook's move comes as major technology firms, including Apple, Amazon and Google, are increasingly ditching traditional silicon providers to design their own chips to save up on costs and boost performance.

In a 2019 blog, Facebook said it was building custom chip designs specially meant to handle AI inference and video transcoding to improve performance, power and efficiency of its infrastructure, which at that time served 2.7 billion people across all its platforms.

The company had also said it would work with semiconductor players such as Qualcomm, Intel and Marvell Technology to build these custom chips as general-purpose processors alone would not be enough to manage the volume of workload Facebook's systems handled.

However, The Information's report suggests that Facebook is designing these chips completely in-house and without the help of these firms.

"Facebook is always exploring ways to drive greater levels of compute performance and power efficiency with our silicon partners and through our own internal efforts," a company spokesperson said.