by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Facebook and Ray-Ban are now collaborating on smart glasses, called “Ray-Ban Stories.” It’s not the first product of its kind but, it’s particularly noteworthy because of its progeny. Facebook as you know, is — by far — the world’s largest social media company, and Ray-Ban’s owner, Luxottica, dominates the eyewear industry.
The glasses themselves are made by Ray-Ban while the underlying technology and the companion Facebook View app are from Facebook Reality Labs — the division of the company that’s also responsible for the Oculus virtual reality headsets, the Portal video conferencing device and future “virtual and augmented reality” products.
Snap, the much smaller social media company that owns Snapchat, introduced its own smart glasses in 2016 and is now on the third generation of its “Snap Spectacles,” which — like the Ray-Ban/Facebook product, captures video and audio but also offers an augmented reality experience with computer-generated images superimposed on what you see in the real world.
This is not a review of either product. I wear prescription lenses, and though it is possible to equip both products with such lenses, I have not yet been able to do that. I have, however, taken a deep dive into the privacy and safety implications of this new category of wearables, most notably by spending time with Facebook executives who have thoroughly briefed me on the new glasses so that I and my colleagues at ConnectSafely could write the Guide to Ray-Ban Stories: Bystander privacy in a world of wearable cameras, which is now available for free at connectsafely.org/rayban.
How Ray-Ban Stories are used
Ray-Ban Stories, which has just become available at ray-ban.com or at Ray-Ban and affiliated retail stores, is basically a still and video camera that you wear as glasses. You can activate the camera by pressing a capture button on the top of the earpiece stem. Alternatively, you can use a verbal command with Facebook Assistant, which you can activate by saying the wake word “Hey Facebook” or using the touchpad on the side of the earpiece stem. You can then transfer the image or video file to your iPhone or Android phone via the Facebook View companion app. From the app, you can upload to Facebook, Instagram or nearly any other social media service or share them by email or text messaging.
You can also listen to music from your phone through the speakers in each earpiece stem. You can’t initiate or answer a phone call from the glasses but can converse through the glasses’ microphone and speakers when connected to your phone by Bluetooth.
Images and videos stay on the glasses until you transfer them to the phone and don’t go anywhere unless you share them. They are not automatically uploaded to Facebook or any other service. Files on the glasses are encrypted to protect you if the device is lost or stolen.
For safety and privacy reasons, you cannot live stream video. The deliberate inability to live stream prevents perpetrators from broadcasting their crimes, as happened during the 2019 shooting at two Christchurch, NZ mosques.
To help protect the privacy of others, the glasses have a white LED light that, according to Facebook, is visible from 25 feet away. The light flashes if you take a still photo and remains on while taking a video. Videos can be a maximum of 30 seconds each. The device only records audio as part of a video. You can’t use it to make an audio-only recording.
The glasses do not track your location, but your smartphone does, and like nearly all digital images, the pictures and video from the glasses include metadata such as the time the photo was taken, the dimensions of the photo, what kind of file it is and that it was taken with Ray-Bay Stories, according to Facebook.
Use case for smart glasses
There are plenty of positive uses for eyeglasses with cameras. You might be a parent wanting to capture images of your child at play quickly. You might be a pet owner looking for that perfect and hard-to-get shot of your best friend. A parent at a soccer game can snap a picture of their budding athlete while holding a sippy cup in one hand and a child in the other. There are also numerous professional applications, including surgery, physical therapy, operating machines, performing maintenance work, and much more. Smart glasses could also be used by human rights’ advocates to document abuses. She didn’t have smart glasses, but had it not been for her smartphone, then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier wouldn’t have been able to capture the video that helped convict the police officer who murdered George Floyd.
Cameras are everywhere
Even if you never wear a pair of smart glasses, they can impact you because it’s now possible that someone wearing them could snap your picture or record you on video. Sure, the flashing or solid LED or the user’s having to say “Hey Facebook” or touch the stem of the glasses may be a clue, but you might miss that cue, and it’s even possible, though irresponsible, for someone to put tape over the LED light.
But, with or without smart glasses, someone who wants to surreptitiously take your picture will probably be able to do so. Smartphone cameras are now ubiquitous as are security cameras, not just in commercial areas but on residential streets, thanks to all those doorbell and driveway cameras. Private detectives and police officers have long used telephoto lenses to take people’s pictures, and there are plenty of “hidden camera” products on the market. I’m reminded of a line from the 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song America, “I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera.” And, unlike 1968, you can now buy a “Necktie Covert and Discreet Hidden Spy Camera” for $49.99 on Amazon.
And this is not a new issue. When Kodak introduced its first handheld camera in 1888, some panicked over what it would mean for personal privacy. In 1901, the New York Times reported how President Theodore Roosevelt admonished a boy using a Kodak to take his picture as he exited a church. “Trying to take a man’s picture as he leaves a house of worship. It is a disgrace. You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” he reportedly said.
The reality is that it’s long been possible to capture images of people in public places including places where we have an expectation of privacy such as public restrooms and locker rooms. What protects us is not technology but social norms. The vast majority of people understand that it’s wrong to take someone’s picture without their permission, and some gyms and other venues have rules against even taking out an imaging device (including a phone) in locker rooms.
But you don’t have to be undressed to worry about having your picture taken. Las Vegas casinos block cameras to help prevent cheating but also so that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But even if you’re not in Sin City, you — and whoever you might be with — can be photographed by automated cameras walking down residential streets.
Do what you can
When I started writing the privacy guides to these smart glasses, my wife asked me “why bother? What can people actually do to protect their privacy?” and she had a point. At the end of the day, we are vulnerable and have been long before Facebook and Ray-Ban entered this market. But, as we say in our guide, it’s important to support privacy norms and to be alert and aware, especially in highly sensitive situations. It’s also important to consider the benefits that we can gain from these new technologies that will continue to enhance our lives.
Verge video shows off the glasses
Here’s a video from The Verge which demonstrates the glasses