by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
I was riding my bicycle the other day taking pictures, talking on the phone and sending and receiving texts without ever taking my hands off the handle bars. All this is possible because I was wearing a pair of the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses, which is the second generation of glasses from the partnership of the dominant players in both eye-wear and social media. Ray-Ban is owned by EssilorLuxottica, which is, by far, the world’s biggest eye-wear maker.
My glasses were provided to me by Meta, which is a supporter of ConnectSafely, the nonprofit internet safety organization where I serve as CEO. I have a prescription pair, whose price depends on what lenses you get. Frames for prescription lenses cost $200. The smart glasses with clear or sunglass lenses cost $329. You can also get them with non-prescription transition lenses that darken in sunlight for $379.
Although there are plenty of smart electronic components in these glasses, the lenses themselves are just plain eye-glass or sun-glass lenses. Unlike some augmented reality glasses or Meta’s own Quest VR headsets, they do not have a display. They do, however, have a very good speaker on each stem that not only plays high-quality music, podcasts or any other audio but can also provide information, similar to a smart speaker. They also have an excellent microphone for calls, video recordings and issuing voice commands. If I were to say “Hey Meta, who is Taylor Swift” I would get a brief description of the famous singer, a bit shorter but otherwise similar to what you’d hear if you were to ask Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple Siri.
Once the music is playing, you can skip forward or backward with a double or triple tap on the right temple or pause the music by clicking once on the temple. You can also hold down your finger on the temple to play your most recent selection on Spotify.
Unlike the smart assistants from Google, Apple and Amazon, Meta’s AI assistant can’t turn lights on or off or initiate music from your phone because it can’t yet control third-party apps. However, if you start a song, a podcast or any other audio from your phone, it will play through the glasses’ speaker. While wearing the Meta Glasses, I’m also wearing a Google Pixel Watch, which work well together. I can ask my watch to play a song or a podcast on my phone and automatically hear it on the glasses without having to pick up my phone, which is great while riding a bike. I assume it would work with any smartwatch that can cause a phone to play music.
Starting to get smarter
Although the AI in Ray-Ban Meta Glasses still has a great deal to learn, it is already starting to get smarter. Next year, Meta is expected to roll out a “look and ask” feature that will allow you to use your voice to ask the glasses to take a picture and tell you what it sees. One of the first applications, already available in its early access program, is translation. You could, for example, look at a sign in Spanish and hear the English translation. I’m hoping that it will eventually be as sophisticated as Google Lens, which allows you to point your phone at almost any object, plant, tree or sign and have a reasonable chance of getting a description. Imagine walking around Washington D.C., and having your glasses describe all the government buildings and monuments in your field of view.
The glasses visual AI feature isn’t yet available on my pair of glasses, but CNET’s Sam Stein got to try them out at Meta’s New York office and wrote that he was able to look at tea packets with their caffeine labels blacked out and learn that “the chamomile tea was likely caffeine-free. It was reading the labels and making judgments using generative AI.”
The photo and video quality from the glasses is surprisingly good. The only problem I’ve discovered is that if you’re too close to a person or object, the image might come out a bit “fish eyed.” But with a little experimentation, I’ve mostly been able to avoid that.
These second-generation glasses that now have a 12-megapixel camera (up from 5 MP), speakers with improved bass that are significantly louder but still quiet enough to not disturb others nearby. The glasses themselves come in two styles — the traditional Ray-Ban Wayfarer style plus a new Headliner design. They are lightweight and, unless someone hears you talking to them or sees you snap a picture, they wouldn’t know you’re wearing smart glasses.
Like its predecessor, there is a LED that turns on if you’re snapping a picture or recording or streaming video. Meta has made that LED brighter, larger and more obvious than with its first pair and disables the camera if you try to obscure the LED light. Still, a lot of bystanders might not be aware that you’re using the glasses’ camera, so I make it a habit not to include anyone in a picture without getting their permission. ConnectSafely has a bystanders guide to Ray-Ban smart glasses at connectsafely.org/rayban.
Unlike most earbuds, people near you can’t see that you’re wearing speakers near your ears. My wife complains that she can’t tell if I’m listening to audio in her presence when she wants me to be able to listen to her. My only complaint is that if I get a text message while wearing the glasses, it automatically reads it to me, even if I’m trying to concentrate on a conversation or perhaps a movie, TV show or live event. Of course, you can turn off the power switch and disable all features, including incoming audio.
The glasses come with what looks like a standard Ray-Ban case, but it’s also a charging case. You can plug it in or take it with you to recharge the glasses from the case’s battery, which, Meta says, will give you up to 36 hours of use. Without a recharge, it seems to get about 3 to 4 hours of use based on my experience. When the battery dies, all of the features stop working except the glasses themselves. They’re just ordinary lenses.
Because I have a prescription and need to wear glasses all the time, these are a great enhancement, which I love to use to listen to audio and make calls on walks and bike rides and, sometimes, when I’m home. They might also be a good solution for those who don’t need to wear glasses but routinely wear sunglasses while outdoors. In terms of cost — a pair of regular Ray-Ban Wayfarer glasses retail for $221 so the smart features add $108 to the cost, though you might be able to get these products for less than the full retail cost. Frames for prescription glasses vary widely, but if you need new glasses anyway, it’s worth considering getting smart ones. Amazon also offers prescription ready Echo Frames, with Alexa built-in for about $200.