Last week Facebook released its new $299 “Ray-Ban Stories” glasses. Wearers can use them to record and share images and short videos, listen to music, and take calls. The people who buy these glasses will soon be out in public and private spaces, photographing and recording the rest of us, and using Facebook’s new “View” app to sort and upload that content.
My issue with these glasses is partially what they are, but mostly what they will become, and how that will change our social landscape.
How will we feel going about our lives in public, knowing that at any moment the people around us might be wearing stealth surveillance technology? People have recorded others in public for decades, but it’s gotten more difficult for the average person to detect, and Facebook’s new glasses will make it harder still, since they resemble and carry the Ray-Ban brand.
That brand’s trusted legacy of “cool” could make Facebook’s glasses appeal to many more people than Snap Spectacles and other camera glasses. (Facebook also has roughly 2 billion more users than Snapchat.) And Facebook can take advantage of the global supply chain and retail outlet infrastructure of Luxottica, Ray-Ban’s parent company. This means the product won’t have to roll out slowly—even worldwide.
Facebook’s glasses could become especially popular during these pandemic times, for they offer a way to record images and sounds without needing to touch a phone or any other surface. They may also be a hit with parents who need to pay attention to their kids but still want to capture spontaneous moments.
At first glance, recording with Facebook’s glasses may not seem much different from snapping a photo or video with a smartphone. However, the way the glasses cover the wearer’s eyes and create photos and videos from that person’s viewpoint changes what such activity means for social groups.
With this product, Facebook is claiming the face as real estate for its own technology. The glasses will become a perpetual viewfinder, emphasizing each wearer’s perspective over the experience of being in any group. As a result, people wearing them may be more drawn to capturing scenes from their unique point of view than actually participating. Also, since more than one person at a time might be wearing the glasses in any given group, this effect could be magnified, and social cohesion could be further fragmented.
Earlier this year, I wrote an ethics paper with Catherine Flick of De Montfort University in the UK, which was published in the May 2021 Journal of Responsible Technology. We argued that the unbridled deployment of “smart glasses” raises serious unforeseen questions about the future of public social interaction.
Ray-Ban Stories are a step toward Mark Zuckerberg’s long-term vision for Facebook, which is to realize and participate in the “metaverse.” Venture capitalist Matthew Ball describes the metaverse as a space of “unprecedented interoperability” with a seamless, integrated economy. Zuckerberg explained it as a shared space that unifies many companies and mediated experiences, including real, virtual, and augmented worlds.
Zuckerberg calls Ray-Ban Stories “one milestone on the path” to immersive augmented-reality (AR) glasses. In 2020, Facebook announced Project Aria, which uses AR-enabled glasses to map the terrain of the public and some private spaces. This mapping effort intends to build up geolocation information and intellectual property to feed the data needs of future AR glasses wearers—and likely advance Facebook’s contribution to the metaverse. As Zuckerberg mentioned in a video introducing Ray-Ban Stories, he plans to ultimately replace mobile phones with Facebook smart glasses.
Glasses provide different social cues than smartphones. We can tell who is on a phone because we can see the phone in people’s hands. Figuring out who is wearing Facebook’s glasses will be more challenging. In part, the Google Glass experiment failed because Glass looked different from normal eyewear, and we could easily identify and avoid those wearing it. But Ray-Ban Stories look a lot like normal Ray-Bans.
With Ray-Ban Stories, we can’t always know who is recording, when or where they are doing it, or what will happen to the data they collect. A small light indicates that the glasses are recording, but that isn’t visible from far away. There’s a quiet “shutter” sound when the person wearing the glasses takes a photo, but it’s hard for others to hear. Even if they do hear it, not knowing what someone intends to do with a recording could cause anyone who is privacy-conscious to worry.
Facebook’s View app “promises to be a safe space,” according to one review, but uploading data through the View app to other Facebook apps makes it unclear which privacy policies apply and how content the glasses record could ultimately be used. People using Ray-Ban Stories may also be subjected to additional surveillance. The View app states that a wearer’s voice commands could be recorded and shared with Facebook to “improve and personalize [the wearer’s] experience.” The user must opt out to avoid this.
When some (but not all) of the people we interact with are cloaked in Ray-Ban Stories, we may not be able to fully cooperate with each other. We may not want to be recorded. Or if we don’t own Facebook’s glasses, or aren’t on Facebook, we may not be able to participate in social activities in the same way as those with Ray-Ban Stories.
To date, Facebook hasn’t had a portable consumer hardware device in the market that works with a mobile phone and back-end software, and it’s clear the company is new at this. It lists only five “responsibility” rules for people who purchase the glasses. Believing that people will actually comply with these rules is either naïve or very optimistic.
These glasses are Facebook’s first step toward building a complete hardware ecosystem for the company’s coming attempts at creating the metaverse. With Ray-Ban Stories, it has gained new capabilities to collect data about people’s behavior, location, and content—even if the company doesn’t use that information yet—as it works toward loftier goals.
While Facebook conducts an enormous beta test in our public spaces, concerned people will be even more on guard in public and may even take evasive measures, such as wearing hats or glasses, or turning away from anyone wearing Ray-Bans. If Facebook adds facial recognition to these glasses in the future, as the company is reportedly considering, people will have to find new countermeasures. This robs us of our peace.
Ray-Ban Stories are now for sale in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Australia. How people use and respond to the device will vary wildly across countries that have different social norms, values, laws, and expectations of privacy. Facebook may be one of the first companies to attempt to deploy smart camera glasses, but it will not be the last. Many other versions will follow, and we’ll need to look out not just for Ray-Bans, but for all types of devices recording us in more subtle ways.
Now go out and get yourself some big black frames,
With the glass so dark they won't even know your name,
And the choice is up to you cause they come in two classes,
Rhinestone shades or cheap sunglasses.
S.A. Applin is an anthropologist and senior consultant whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at @anthropunk, sally.com, and PoSR.org.