While we ponder what Apple may bring to the table for augmented reality (AR) headwear, Facebook and Amazon are already staking claim to smart glasses in a big (and possibly bad, at least in terms of privacy) way.
Facebook and Amazon are tackling AR headwear differently, as both companies announced on the same day. At its Oculus Connect developer’s conference, Facebook confirmed it will develop AR glasses. Facebook’s Trojan Horse is mapping; it wants us to use these AR glasses to map the world around us, which is sort of a weird end-around for Google Maps. The project, dubbed “Live Maps,” wants to create “multi-layer representations of the world” by combining traditional maps with crowdsourced data from the eyewear (and via phones, so get ready for that).
We don’t know what final form these glasses will take. Facebook’s AR/VR head Andrew Bosworth says the company has “a few” prototypes floating around. A separate report says Facebook is partnering with Ray-Ban to bring AR glasses to the masses, which is a clear and direct swipe at Snap’s fashionable Spectacles.
Amazon is going a different route, which we first heard about two years ago. It’s leaning into Alexa for its heads-up offering. Continuing its "Alexa everywhere" mission, Amazon is now weaving the digital assistant into eyeglasses. But during its hands-on time with Echo Frames (someone missed out on the “Alexa Specs” branding, but whatever), The Verge says they might be a letdown:
The glasses pair with your Android phone and can read out notifications, make phone calls, and play audio, including music and podcasts. You can also ask Alexa for rundowns of your calendar, the news, weather, and the usual things you’ve come to expect.
Amazon is also quoting three-hour playback and 14-hour standby time, which is not even close to good when it comes to wearables. The Verge says the glasses feel cheap, and there’s no iOS support right now. The two directional speakers in each temple are also apparently hard to hear in busier rooms.
These products are only initial forays into "smart" headwear. Facebook is much more direct about its hardware's "traditional" AR capabilities, although it's also easy to see (pun intended) how Alexa as an always-on voice assistant can frame (yeah… pun intended, kids) your day-to-day interactions with reality, even if the Amazon glasses aren't projecting holograms over your lenses. If Alexa knows you’re meeting a colleague, for instance, it may remind you to ask them about a project you’re both involved with, or other tidbits of info that may prove helpful.
We’ll also point out that the initial two major tech companies coming forward with AR or "smart" glasses have some of the worst track records for user privacy. As Dice Senior Editor Nick Kolakowski pointed out on Twitter, Facebook’s glasses may actually make the old days of Google Glass hatred seem lightweight by comparison:
I want you to picture someone walking into a bar wearing a pair of FB AR glasses that include face recognition, geo-tagging, etc. You thought the grief given to Google Glass wearers was bad? I guarantee anyone wearing FB Glass will get a beatdown. https://t.co/WOW1di9c2b— Nick Kolakowski (@nkolakowski) September 25, 2019
Amazon’s glasses can’t "turn on" any sort of display tech, as they lack the necessary specs (okay, yes, pun intended, sue me) for a heads-up display. Facebook’s glasses, by contrast, are certainly meant to show you pop-up notifications and labels for items or places floating in mid-air. These two brands are taking different routes toward what many believe is the next phase of technology, “ambient intelligence.” Google was first among the big tech companies in this arena, but has since relegated its Glass hardware for enterprise use-cases.
However, Google has also rolled out Duplex, an A.I. bot that can make calls in your stead, showing that it's interested in "augmenting" how people move through the world; the ethical implications are still murky. In a survey of technologists, we found most don’t think voice queries should be listened to by contractors for Apple, Amazon, Google, or Facebook. This underscores how critical privacy should remain to AR and other smart headwear, and leaves us hoping whichever platform strikes it big first will keep that in mind.