Facebook’s smart Ray-Ban glasses are disappointingly familiar

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Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses: the most normal-looking yet.

Scott Stein/CNET

Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories sunglasses feel almost normal at times. And, of course, utterly abnormal. And also very familiar. I’ve used products like this, off and on, for years. Welcome to Facebook’s first smart glasses. 

After promising smart glasses for years, Facebook’s first glasses are disappointingly familiar. These aren’t AR glasses at all. They don’t have displays in them. Instead, they’re a blend of technologies that have already been in other glasses: they have cameras in them, and microphones, and speakers. They’re headphones and camera-glasses in one, and that’s about it. That’s what I expected based on Mark Zuckerberg’s recent expectation-setting comments this year, but I’m still surprised these don’t push the envelope a bit more.

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Facebook’s first smart glasses are the Ray-Ban Stories

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The partnership with the massive glasses manufacturer EssilorLuxottica, and the design, are the interesting parts. Ray-Ban Stories is an odd name for the $299 (£299, AU$449) glasses, which are available now at Ray-Ban stores and will be arriving at retailers such as LensCrafters next week. But the glasses don’t mention Facebook in the branding very much. Also, they’re a clear attempt to take the torch from Snapchat’s similarly featured camera-enabled Spectacles, as well as audio-enabled glasses such as the Bose Frames and Amazon Echo Frames. Really, they’re a fusion of the two ideas. And at the moment, they’re not much more than that, even if Facebook promises to go much further in future products.

But first, Facebook is going to have to bridge the territory of privacy — not just for those who might have photos taken of them, but for the wearers of these microphone and camera-equipped glasses. VR headsets are one thing (and they come off your face after a session). Glasses you wear around every day are the start of Facebook’s much larger ambition to be an always-connected maker of wearables, and that’s a lot harder for most people to get comfortable with.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

A sleek design, and a familiar one.

Scott Stein/CNET

Walking down my quiet suburban street, I’m looking up at the sky. Recording the sky. Around my ears, I hear ABBA’s new song, I Still Have Faith In You. It’s a melancholic end to the summer. I’m taking my new Ray Ban smart glasses for a walk.

The Ray-Ban Stories feel like a conservative start. They lack some features that have been in similar products already. The glasses, which act as earbud-free headphones, don’t have 3D spatial audio like the Bose Frames and Apple’s AirPods Pro do. The stereo cameras, on either side of the lenses, don’t work with AR effects, either. Facebook has a few sort-of-AR tricks in a brand-new companion app called View that pairs with these glasses on your phone, but they’re mostly ways of using depth data for a few quick social effects.

And yes, these glasses need your phone. They’re basically phone peripherals. I tested the Ray-Ban Stories paired with an iPhone 12 Pro. And while my Ray-Ban glasses have sunglass lenses, they can be outfitted with polarized and prescription lenses. These could be my everyday glasses. But right now, my review units didn’t come prescription-equipped, so I used contacts when I wore them around. Here’s what my first week with them has been like.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

My old Ray-Bans, and the Ray-Ban Stories glasses. Can you see the difference?

Scott Stein/CNET

Glasses design: Very nearly normal 

The glasses, which come in several different designs and lens colors, are impressive because they seem so nearly normal, even more so than the Amazon and Bose versions. The Ray-Ban Stories look innocuous at first, but they’re still not everyday normal — the arms are thick, and the charging case they come in is particularly shaped just for these glasses. And there are camera lenses in the corners of the frames. At a distance, they seem invisible. But up close, the lenses are clearly there. Staring.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

That light goes on when it’s recording, right near one of the camera lenses in the corners.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Ray-Bans I tried were the Wayfarers model, but there are two other models to choose from: Round and Meteor. These glossy black Ray-Bans totally look like my years-old, falling-apart Ray-Ban sunglasses, even up close. They feel less like tech, and more like glasses. There are several colors (shiny black, black matte, shiny blue, shiny olive and shiny brown), and six lenses (G-15 green, photochromatic G-15 green, dark gray, polar dark blue, brown gradient and clear). There are polarized and transition options, and they should be compatible with standard prescriptions, too. 

In a lot of ways, the normal look of these glasses feels like their greatest achievement. I had friends and family who were surprised that these were smart glasses, even when they were standing next to me up close.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

There’s a light inside the glasses, too, for battery status and as a recording indicator.

Scott Stein/CNET

An always-on feel (even if it’s not)

Unfolding the glasses and putting them on, I hear a little chime sound. They’re connected. If I say, “Hey Facebook,” a little gentle chirp sounds near my ears letting me know it’s listening. Also, there’s an LED light that appears in the upper corner of my peripheral vision of my right eye that I can just barely see. The glasses don’t talk to me when I say, “Hey, Facebook.” They just make little approving beeps or confused beeps to indicate understanding. It sounds a bit like Wall-E.

Facebook’s glasses pair via Bluetooth using the new Facebook View app, like a smartwatch. When on my face they default as Bluetooth audio for my phone. The glasses’ right arm is a touch surface, so I can tap, double-tap and triple-tap to accept or end calls, play and pause, and skip tracks. Swiping back and forth increases and lowers volume.

There’s a physical camera button on the top of the right arm, so I can tap once to start a video recording, or press and hold to snap a photo. But there’s a delay between the press and the photo snap, while video recording is nearly instantaneous.

Saying, “Hey Facebook” only enables two features: taking a photo and taking a video. I can’t request music, place a call, change volume or do anything else Assistant- or Alexa-like. That’s clearly by design. I’m not sure how much I’d trust Facebook with voice commands on the go. But I’d also like more than two commands.

Facebook records voice commands by default in a log in the app, which can be deleted. These voice commands are analyzed by Facebook, but there’s a setting to opt out of storing transcripts (and the voice assistant can be disabled, too). Facebook says these recordings help improve the AI, much like Alexa and Assistant and other voice products do. It doesn’t record logs of anything else I say (at least I don’t think so). 

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

A shutter button is on one arm, right above a touchpad that controls volume and can be tapped to answer calls and play/pause.

Josh Goldman/CNET

Audio and camera quality: Merely OK

The Ray-Ban Stories work like Bluetooth headphones, pumping music to my ears from nearby speaker-holes in a similar way that the Oculus Quest 2 does with speakers in its headband. This means I can wear them easily, and take my mask on and off without popping out earbuds when I’m going to stores, but the audio levels and quality aren’t nearly as good as headphones. Or even Bose Frames, which sound richer and louder. They’re good enough for casual podcast listening or some music, or taking a phone call. The embedded microphones seemed to work well for call quality as far as other people’s experience, from what my mom and a friend told me. The glasses have three beam-forming microphones, which worked pretty well for outdoor calls. But sometimes nearby sounds like lawn mowers ended up getting in the way.

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Technically, you could hear what I’m listening to or who I was talking to if you got close enough to my ears, or if I was standing in a quiet place. It’s similar to how the Oculus Quest pipes in sound that can still be heard faintly from a distance. 

I’m surprised these glasses lack 3D spatial audio, a technology that’s heated up lately. Facebook is bullish on spatial audio as a way to bring people together virtually, but that element is missing on these glasses right now.

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Ray-Ban Stories self-portrait, bathroom mirror.

Scott Stein/CNET

As cameras, these glasses are suitable in a pinch, but they’re no phone replacement. The 5-megapixel cameras were never designed to rival phone cameras, and some photos seemed less rich and detailed than I’m used to. But some park shots looked good, and much like the recent Apple Watch wristband camera I tried out this summer, having some ability to snap a pic in phone-free situations is better than none. Familiar memories of memory-surrogate camera devices, including Google Glass, reemerged. But these glasses don’t have displays in them — you have to look forward and just hope you’ve framed things right. Generally, things turned out kind of OK.

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Recording a photo of myself as I shoot b-roll for my video.

Scott Stein/CNET

Video, recorded in 30-second bursts, looks better than expected… but watch my video review and the clips and judge for yourself. Again, this is no GoPro, and the 30-second recording limit means these will never be real camera tools for serious hands-free sports, cooking, art or other possible uses.

The camera shoots videos in square format at 1,184×1,184 pixels at 30 frames per second (or vertical portrait mode in a long rectangle), and photos in a normal 4:3 ratio, at 2,592×1,944 resolution. No circular videos like Snapchat Spectacles took (thankfully).

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Shot on Ray-Ban Stories: a nearby park. One of the better photos.

Scott Stein/CNET

The glasses have onboard storage that’s enough for 35 30-second videos or 500 photos, according to Facebook. I never filled it up in one of my outings, but I also kept my phone nearby. The glasses connect back to the phone app, Facebook View, to dump off photos and clear up the glasses storage. These are meant to be used with a phone nearby, but they could be stand-alone camera-glasses for a few hours, too. The glasses recharge using the included case, using a clever magnetic contact hidden in one of the glasses’ arm hinges. But that also means you need the case to use the glasses.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

The included charge case, the only way to charge up the glasses.

Josh Goldman/CNET

The case has a USB-C port to recharge and holds enough battery to charge the glasses several times (three according to Facebook). Battery life for the glasses and the case appear in the View app on the phone. The case half-charges the glasses in 30 minutes, or takes 70 minutes for a full charge.

They’re also Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled; the glasses use Bluetooth 5 to connect to phones for audio and have 802.11ac Wi-Fi to download photos and video faster.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

I feel kind of self-conscious taking photos with these on.

Josh Goldman/CNET

Privacy or spy glasses?

Welcome (back) to the ongoing question of smart glasses and public acceptance. Ever since the rise and fall of Google Glassholes in 2013/14, we never really solved the idea of how to handle camera-equipped face wearables. Facebook has lots of privacy guidelines in its Ray-Ban Stories reviewer’s guide and on the Facebook View app’s onboarding tutorial, mainly suggesting to respect local laws, not to use while driving or using heavy equipment, and to turn off when in certain public places. There’s an on-off switch inside the glasses along one arm, but the glasses usually don’t do anything automatically unless you specifically ask Facebook to take a photo or video, or use the camera shutter button.

A white LED light built into the front corner of the frames pops on to alert people when you’re recording (also, there’s a shutter-snap sound when taking photos), but these alerts are pretty subtle. In fact, my kids standing next to me in bright daylight didn’t really notice it. That, combined with the unexpectedly subtle darkened camera lenses on the glasses, make these a lot more stealthy than I was expecting. Great for being able to wear them without standing out, and most people aren’t likely to think there are cameras built in.

Then again, we’re already in a world where our phones take photos all the time. Life is already a state of semisurveillance. But that doesn’t mean that camera glasses are an acceptable social norm, either.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

The Facebook View app, where the glasses pair with your phone and photos and videos are stored. There are some applied after-effects, too.

Scott Stein/CNET

But what about concerns about Facebook’s privacy intrusions for you, the glasses-wearer? Facebook’s new View app promises to be a safe space where photos are collected and not shared to other apps, or uploaded or analyzed by Facebook for ad targeting. Upload to Facebook or Instagram, however, and then you’re in Facebook’s standard social media privacy rules. Facebook also says all camera usage data isn’t used for ad-targeting either (or what the glasses see or hear), but there are settings where you could allow Facebook to analyze how you use the glasses (number of photos taken, length of use), using this to “improve and personalize your product experience.” I kept that turned off. 

Does all this feel concerning? Sure. Facebook’s bound to keep blurring the lines between privacy and your data as the hardware gets more complex, and so are other manufacturers of AR devices.

Facebook Ray-Ban Stories 2021

The Ray-Ban Stories next to the Oculus Quest 2. When will these two begin to dovetail?

Scott Stein/CNET

Hey Facebook, what next?

As a connected pair of sunglasses, these Ray-Ban Stories show that getting normal glasses to have tech inside really is possible. But these are absolutely not AR glasses, and Facebook’s ambitious road ahead includes a lot more than speakers and cameras. Facebook is currently testing sensor arrays in prototype glasses to see how future devices could see and map the world: This is what Facebook wants its future AR headsets to be. Also, at some point, neural input wristbands and watches will act as ways to gesture and touch invisible things shown through heads-up displays.

Where Facebook goes next with glasses is the interesting part. The multiyear partnership with EssilorLuxottica that Facebook has announced, which starts with these more basic glasses, clearly strives towards far more advanced stuff. Blending of virtual and real with embedded displays, spatial audio. None of that is here, though.

For the moment, the most interesting part of the Ray-Ban Stories is that they’re Ray-Bans. And there is something futuristic about putting these on and suddenly hearing them chirp to life, at the ready, seemingly alive. But their smart features are limited for now. Maybe that comforts you or disappoints you. Or both. But Facebook’s true AR visions are going to take a while longer. If you’re really interested in mixed reality for a few hundred dollars, the Oculus Quest 2 is already dabbling in it. These Ray-Bans may eventually evolve to meet the Quest someday, too.

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