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Home >Opinion >Columns >Facebook’s Ray-Ban ‘spy gogs’ may turn out to be a hot seller

For good reason, many people will not like the fact that Facebook is literally getting closer to their faces with the new smart glasses it unveiled last week. Many more will buy them in droves. Hear me out. 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’s Fire Phone? Not only that, Snapchat’s Spectacles, arguably the most well-known smart glasses on the market, have not sold well. Launched in 2016, they led to a $40 million write-down 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 anyone brave enough to wear Google Glass, or any of the four generations of Snap’s Spectacles. 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 can raise a person’s coolness factor by a couple notches. Stories only weigh about 5gm more than regular Ray Bans, according to Facebook. Compare that to Snap’s latest Spectacles, which weigh about 130gm, versus typical sunglasses which weigh 30-50gm.

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 mikes, so you can listen to a podcast while on a run, or even take a call while walking to your car. One can 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 usually do with earphones like Apple’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 thing can also record anything you want along the way?

Facebook’s third and perhaps winning factor here is simplicity. By not packing his product with new-fangled 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 of? And yet, despite customers mainly using it to play music or set a timer, the Echo has since sold tens of millions of units and come to dominate the smart speaker market, turning 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 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.

Facebook doesn’t have the problem of cultivating a base of ‘fashion-forward’ early adopters. Pretty much anyone would look good in its new glasses, and find them useful and straightforward. That’s perfect for Zuckerberg’s user base.

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 conditions if a wearer is recording them, according to 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 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.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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