Smart Glasses by Facebook and Ray-Ban mix Cool with Creepy

Ray-Ban’s Stories look like classic sunglasses. Except they’re made in partnership with Facebook and have built-in cameras that are hard to spot. We tested them.

By guest author Joanna Stern from the Wall Street Journal

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Look, did I feel creepy recording my mother and my aunt without them knowing? Or my barista? Or a random couple at the coffee shop? Or my Uber driver? Or…an aggressive squirrel in Central Park? I sure did, but I was just doing my job.

And by job, I don’t mean a spy—not that I could tell you if I was one anyway. I’m a not-at-all covert technology columnist reviewing a new pair of camera-equipped sunglasses from Ray-Ban and Facebook, FB 0.18% and considering the privacy implications of such an innovation.

I don’t blame these people for having no idea I was James Bonding them. Just as I don’t blame the other 20 people out in public I ran the same hidden-camera experiment on this week. Not one spotted the cameras or the recording light until I told them. (So as to not invade their privacy, I told all of them quickly after I started rolling, and deleted footage upon request.)

All captions courtesy by the Wall Street Journal

But really, how could they have known? These sunglasses look like the classic Wayfarer Ray-Bans you’ve known since Tom Cruise slid into the living room in his tighty whities. Sleek polarized lenses, round frames, Ray-Ban logo and all. Except embedded in them is one teeny-tiny recording light, two 5-megapixel cameras, a three-microphone array, four gigabytes of storage and, oh, about a million concerns about the future of wearable technology.

Connected camera glasses aren’t new. There was Google Glass and more recently Snap’s Spectacles. Like those, the USD 299 Ray-Ban Stories—which go on sale Thursday—are meant to let you capture life without holding your phone in your face.

These Ray-Bans just look normal. That’s what makes them so cool, but also makes them, well, spy glasses. Ray-Ban will sell them in 20 different style combinations, including with regular clear lenses. (It will offer a prescription version, too.)

And they’re powered by technology from Facebook, which has a long history of privacy issues. Executives from both Facebook and Ray-Ban parent Luxottica assured me that privacy is built into the product. And there are some strong protections. They also assured me that these are intended for capturing spontaneous, fun moments. Kids! Roller coasters! Concerts! Sports!

The glasses are great for those things, but—as I found in my week of testing—oh goodness, there’s a gap between what tech is intended for and how it can be used.

The Intended Use

One tap on a small button on the glasses’ right temple and I was off recording short videos of my son, never having to fumble with my smartphone. There he is jumping on the trampoline, running after my dog in the park, smiling ear to ear as I chased him with a bubble gun.

To stop recording, I just press the button again. Otherwise, recording will stop after 30 seconds—the current limit set by the companies. Half a minute goes very quickly. In many instances, I was disappointed the recording cut off so fast. If you have voice control enabled, you can also say, “Hey Facebook, start a video” or “take a photo.” (It won’t respond to other types of requests.)

A clip from a video recorded via the Ray-Ban Stories glasses.
Photo: Joanna Stern/The Wall Street Journal

Long-press on that same button and you can snap a photo. That’s where the second camera comes in. For still photos, it gathers depth information so when you edit the photo in the Facebook View companion app, you can pan around and see some slight movement.

The image quality isn’t as crisp or clear as what you’d get with the latest iPhone, but it’s certainly good enough for sharing to your Facebook or Instagram Stories.

How do you actually do that? Images and videos are saved to the glasses. Then, when they are paired via Bluetooth with your iPhone or Android phone, you can sync the media in the Facebook View app, which requires you to sign in with your Facebook account. To share, there’s a third step: You have to export the photos and videos to the Facebook and Instagram apps—or really any social-media app.

Alex Himel, vice president of augmented reality at Facebook, told me the company walled off the Facebook View app for privacy. There’s no advertising in the app, and the content of your photos and videos in the app aren’t used for advertising. Once photos leave the app, they are subject to other apps’ policies.

Because of that Bluetooth connection, you can also listen to music or podcasts through built-in speakers near your ears. Doing a 30-minute guided Peloton run with just the glasses and my phone was pretty great (though I missed the sound quality and noise cancellation of my AirPods Pro). You can also take phone calls, and control the volume by swiping on the touch-sensitive temple.

But wearers of these sunglasses must beware…the sun! While sitting outside on an 85-degree day, I got a phone alert that my glasses had overheated and could no longer take photos or charge.

The possible Misuse

With the same tap that I recorded fun family moments, I was also able to record nearly two dozen covert files.

That LED recording light is slightly bigger than a poppy seed. At a healthy Covid social distance, many struggled to see it even when I pointed it out. Plus, since the indicator is a white light, it’s easily outshined outdoors by sunlight. Snap’s Spectacles, on the other hand, have easy-to-spot circular LEDs that surround the cameras.

Facebook and Luxottica had a few responses to my concerns that this is spy gear:

• The gesture of lifting your hand up to the button is an additional signal that you’re recording. (In my tests, few noticed the gesture.)

• The 30-second video limit is set so you can’t record people at length without their knowledge.

• Before using the glasses, the Facebook View app instructs users to explain the LED light to others, and provides further guidance on appropriate behavior.

• The companies will launch a website explaining the privacy protections, and a marketing campaign to let people know these camera glasses exist.

If you really intended for no one to see the light, you could cover it up with a piece of black tape. The camera still works. Facebook says this is a violation of its terms of service.

“New norms will develop as people get used to this new type of device that can capture,” Mr. Himel said. “We’re open to feedback on what’s working and what’s not. We want to help bystanders feel more comfortable.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company consulted with privacy organisations and experts during the development of the glasses, including the National Consumers League.

John Breyault, a vice president at the organization, said he suggested to Facebook that the camera should stop working if someone concealed or disabled the light. He also said he suggested that the glasses have some different branding or design to make it clearer that they weren’t just your usual Ray-Bans.

“Unfortunately, those features weren’t included in this first iteration of these smart glasses,” Mr. Breyault told me. He did say that Facebook did implement his group’s other suggestions, including the recording time limit and the app’s privacy measures.

Another concern: Voice control often mistakes what I say for “Hey Facebook”—including telling my son, “Hey, don’t touch that.” But the feature isn’t on by default, and it never accidentally took a picture or video. There’s also a power switch so you can turn off the cameras and microphones.

The inevitable Excuse

It would be easy to tell you that you should go out and buy these Ray-Bans. It’s amazing how much tech is packed in such a classic design. We might look back at this as the moment we heard the starting gun in the smart-glasses race.

Yet whenever I think of the cool, I can’t shake the creepy. Easy to record your kids! And just as easy for some stranger to record your kids. Easy to capture spontaneous moments with your friends! And just as easy for someone to record a partner who is unaware a camera is on.

Dystopian? Sure. But one of the big lessons of the last decade—and the rise of Big Tech—is that cutting-edge convenience comes at a cost. We’ve already slid down a few slippery slopes, including a lack of data privacy and smartphone dependency. The cost may be worth it at times. We have free search engines and social networks, and little computers in our pockets that do so much.

But before we tumble down the next slippery slope it is worth much deeper consideration. In the case of the Ray-Ban Stories, I’m not convinced being able to take pictures without a smartphone in your hands is worth the potential privacy concerns. Augmented-reality glasses, however, will eventually gain functionality that will seem worth it. Hopefully by then, everyone will be able to see the recording light—or at least know to look out for one.