Facebook May Have a Hit With Its Spy Glasses for the Masses
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For good reason, many people will not like the fact that Facebook Inc. is literally getting closer to their faces with the new smart glasses it unveiled on Thursday. Many more will not care and buy them in droves.
Hear me out, because yes, it is tempting to write off the $299 Ray-Ban Stories as another privacy quagmire, or another Big Tech skunkworks project destined to flop. Remember the Microsoft Band smartwatch? Or Amazon.com Inc.’s Fire Phone? Not only that, Snapchat’s Spectacles, arguably the most well-known smart glasses on the market, have not sold well. After launching in 2016, they led to a $40 million writedown for Snap Inc.
But Facebook’s Stories glasses are different for three reasons: They look good, they are useful and they are relatively simple to use — and that could make all the difference.
First aesthetics. This is an easy one to argue if you ever saw someone brave enough to wear Google Glass, or any of the four generations of Snap’s Spectacles. Generations one through three of Spectacles were intended for a more “fashion-forward” and creative audience, and for that effort featured pointy corners that gave off a Dame Edna vibe, along with large LED lights. The fourth and most recent version, released last May, are thin, rectangular sunglasses that made Snap’s CEO Evan Spiegel in his unveiling video look like Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge of Star Trek: The Next Generation. All told, the only people who have ever looked not-bad in smart glasses were carefully-lit models, and even that was a stretch at times.
But Facebook’s glasses look like normal sunglasses which, by their nature, raise a person’s coolness factor up a couple notches. In fact, Stories only weigh about five grams more than regular Ray Bans, according to Facebook. Compare that to Snap’s latest Spectacles, which weigh about 130 grams, versus typical sunglasses which weigh anywhere between 30 and 50 grams.
As for usefulness, I’m betting the primary reason people will be tempted to buy Stories is their audio functionality. The glasses come with “discrete, open-ear speakers” and three different mics, which mean you can listen to a podcast while on a run, or even take a call while walking to your car. There’s an option to start recording by saying “Hey Facebook, start video,” something I can’t see people using much. The real draw will be doing the things you would normally do with earphones like Apple Inc.’s wireless AirPods or Samsung’s Galaxy Buds. Why go through the hassle of plugging those in your ears and wearing sunglasses when you could wear just one thing, and that one thing can also record anything interesting that happens along the way?
Facebook’s third and perhaps most winning factor here is simplicity. By not packing his product with newfangled tech like augmented reality, Mark Zuckerberg is also making sure he doesn’t alienate mainstream consumers. That approach has served other tech companies well in the past. Amazon’s initial marketing of its Echo smart speaker left many in the tech industry scratching their heads: Why would anyone want a giant, metal toilet paper roll in their living room that they could ask questions to? And yet, despite the fact that customers mainly used it to play music or set the odd timer, the Echo has since sold tens of millions of units and come to dominate the smart speaker market, turning Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple into fast-followers.
Facebook also didn’t pack many features into Portal, the smart display device it started selling in 2018 for conducting video calls. It didn’t integrate a proprietary voice assistant, for instance, leaving users to rely on Amazon’s Alexa. Now, despite a shaky start, Portal appears to have seen a spike in sales during the pandemic, as video calling became all the rage.
Facebook doesn’t have the problem of cultivating a base of “fashion-forward” early adopters like Snap. Pretty much anyone would look good in its new glasses, and find them useful and straightforward. That’s perfect for Zuckerberg’s user base, which is effectively mainstream consumers around the world.
But here are a couple of downsides, which once again have more to do with Facebook’s societal impact than its ability to make money. By being so cool-looking, its new specs are creepily like spy glasses. The cameras are harder to spot and, crucially, the LED light that indicates they are recording video is tiny. It also emits a white (not red) light, making it hard for others to tell in bright lighting conditions if a wearer is recording them, according to this review by the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, who wore them for a week. Facebook told Stern that the gesture of lifting your hand up to start recording was signal enough to others, but Stern writes that few noticed the gesture in her own real-world tests.
Snap, for its part, makes it clear with its early Spectacles that they are recording, with much larger LED circles that flash or spin round.
Facebook’s timing on this is also somewhat terrible — the very end of summer when people are gearing up for less sunny weather. (Brits can rule themselves out as a fanbase completely.) Perhaps the next iteration will be clear lenses. If people like the audio and recording functions enough, they may happily look like Clark Kent throughout the day.
They likely won’t buy Facebook’s glasses to conduct covert recording, but with the tool so easily there at their fingertips, many will probably do it without realizing the full consequences of their actions. That could be become a new privacy mess for Facebook down the line.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of "We Are Anonymous."
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