Ray-Ban Stories: Can Facebook finally make smart glasses work?

9 Sep 2021

Image: Jack Kennedy

The tech giant is partnering with an iconic eyewear brand in an attempt to succeed where many others have failed.

Smart glasses are the graveyard of empires. From Google Glass to Snapchat Spectacles, many a tech titan has announced with great fanfare their intention to conquer the optical wearables space once and for all. None have so far truly succeeded.

Neither Glass nor Spectacles have managed to eke out a space in the consumer electronics market, let alone make augmented reality, or AR, a part of everyday life. Indeed, both were included on this list of nine infamous tech disasters of the 2010s.

Future Human

So when I was offered the chance to get my hands on Ray-Ban Stories, the new collaboration between Facebook and the iconic sunglasses brand, I was nothing if not intrigued.

The glasses come with a 5MP camera on each side, three microphones, speakers, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capability. They can be used for sound input and output while connected to a phone, and can capture photos and videos (up to 30 seconds at a time) whether or not they’re connected. They come in a number of different existing Ray-Ban styles and can be fitted with various kinds of lenses.

Perhaps what’s most notable about the Ray-Bans is what they’re not; AR. The glasses have no augmented reality features of any kind. All in all, they’re simply a pair of Ray-Ban glasses with a built-in Bluetooth headset and a camera that can be controlled by voice.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about Facebook’s vision for the “metaverse” increasingly frequently lately, of which AR is a big component. And the company certainly has the capability to pursue R&D in this area since its $2.3bn acquisition of virtual reality outfit Oculus in 2014. But the Stories glasses don’t contribute directly to this vision.

That’s actually something Facebook has been quite clear about. Despite referring to them as “smart glasses”, which might bring to mind AR, the company has been clear from more than a year ago that this product wouldn’t have a display.

That said, there’s a strong argument that Ray-Ban Stories represent a kind of dry run for true AR glasses, which Facebook has confirmed it’s working on. And in that respect, there are a number of important things to consider about the glasses.

The tech

Stories prototype a number of technical features that one can easily imagine being used in future, more advanced wearables.

They pack impressive battery life and data storage into a form factor that is effectively identical to standard Ray-Bans. They have a nifty capacitive touch pad for audio control, volume and activating Facebook Assistant. And the speakers built into the arms, just above your ears, are high-quality and quite powerful.

Despite the claims made by the technical team at launch that “in pretty much all environments, it’s going be private, people around you are not going to be able to hear what you’re listening to at all”, there is a fair amount of audio leakage. The sound is directional, maybe impressively so, but if someone was listening to a podcast on these while sitting beside you on a long train ride, you’d get tired of it pretty fast.

The charging case is an important innovation too. It’s about the size and shape of a regular hard glasses case, but has its own (much larger) battery that charges the glasses whenever they’re placed into it. It’s a neat idea that makes it much more possible to bring the Stories out and about. Again, it’s easy to see that being useful for making future AR glasses a part of everyday life.

The Facebook View app that pairs with the Stories has a number of quite powerful video and photo editing features (for when media has been downloaded to the phone). This is less directly applicable to AR, but may be transferable in future to Instagram, to which the app allows you to publish directly. These features also take advantage of the two-camera set-up, allowing you to introduce motion to photos after they’ve been taken, and do interesting things around altering focus

Privacy

Facebook’s technical team clearly had privacy in mind when designing the glasses. The company is eager to note that a highly-visible LED lights up on the outside of the glasses whenever they’re capturing photo or video so people can’t be recorded without their knowledge. Additionally, all media is encrypted onboard before being transferred to your phone via Bluetooth.

There’s plenty of room for debate about how effective these privacy features actually are, but they’re very deliberately being put front and centre in the marketing. Between the concerns raised around Google Glass and the privacy criticism Facebook has faced more generally, the company is aware it at least needs to be discussing the issue.

The style

It is very important that these are Ray-Bans. The design team was proud to report that Stories are just 5g heavier than (and a bit over twice the price of) regular Ray-Bans, and they look basically identical at a glance. In a way, the company seems to be positioning them as a premium option in the existing luxury sunglasses market – an upgrade to the Ray-Bans people might already have been considering buying. This is also evident in the name – they’re not Facebook glasses, they’re Ray-Ban Stories.

People made fun of Google Glass for its supposedly ‘dorky’ appearance, but you can easily imagine wearing these on an everyday basis. People might not even notice unless you started taking photos or talking to your eyewear. Granted if you, like me, don’t need glasses, people might ask why you’re suddenly wearing them all the time. But you could also buy the sunglasses version.

That’s part of the point; a key supposed use case of the Stories is to capture moments as they happen without having to fish out your phone. Your glasses are there, and you just press the button or use a voice command. It’s partially for activities for which you need to be able to use both hands or concentrate on what you’re doing, but it’s also for fleeting moments that you might otherwise miss. I found use for the glasses while zip-lining, and to get some quality shots of my cat (who usually stops whatever cute thing he’s doing the minute I point a phone at him).

If marketed right, this gives the Stories at least a chance at the mass-market appeal that previous smart glasses efforts have failed to achieve, rather than exclusively appealing to those keenly interested in tech. Apple, with its reputation for stylishness, managed to tap into this market relatively successfully with the Apple Watch, so it can be done.

Certainly, the Venn diagram of people who are interested in luxury sunglasses and people who want more ways to create content for Instagram, TikTok, etc has a pretty big intersection, and the aforementioned content-editing features indicate a desire to appeal to these kinds of consumers. It’s hard to say if this will work. It is still a gamble, but partnering with the single biggest name in luxury eyewear certainly seems worth a try.

Whether this strategy will be maintained for future, actual AR wearables from Facebook isn’t clear. The company may see lower-tech glasses with mass-market, fashionable potential and more advanced AR gear for techy types as entirely separate niches, with the former double-jobbing as a testbed for the latter.

Will Stories succeed, either as a money maker or to lay the groundwork for the augmented reality future? It’s far too early to say. But the approach is novel without a doubt, and quite clever.

Personally, I thought the Ray-Ban Stories were kind of neat. They’re well designed for what they are, and fun to use. I do struggle quite a bit to imagine myself going out and buying them at their premium price point, but I am neither dedicated enough to Instagram nor stylish enough to speak on behalf of the core target demographic.

But if you’ve always wanted to somehow make hands-free cooking videos while also wearing designer glasses, today is your lucky day.

Ray-Ban Stories are available online and in Ray-Ban stores in Ireland, the US, the UK, Canada and Australia and Italy from today (9 September). They cost €329 for baseline frames, €359 with polarised lenses, €409 for transition lenses, and at variable prices for prescription lenses.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin

editorial@siliconrepublic.com