So, Facebook is the latest company to try and make smart glasses a thing that people would voluntarily pay money for and then put on their face. In public.
Perhaps aware of its limited fashion credentials, Facebook has wisely turned to Ray Ban for the actual design, and the tech implementation is sensibly limited. But in the long run, it seems that Facebook wants something a bit more AR heavy, so we can all cosplay as the Borg whether we actually care for Star Trek or not.
It’s slightly weird that companies keep on trying to popularise smart glasses for a number of reasons. First of all, you’d think the fact that the name ‘glassholes’ was created solely to describe early (and, it turned out, final) adopters of Google Glass would be a pretty clear sign of the general public’s hostility to any attempt to give humans (very basic) cyborg vision.
But on an even more basic level, glasses haven’t ever really been something that people aspire to wear: they’re designed to fix vision, not be a fashion accessory in their own right. Some pay a lot of money for fancy Swiss-made watches, which makes smartwatches at least theoretically desirable, but people seem more keen to pay money in order not to wear glasses. They not only pay thousands of dollars for laser eye surgery, but they’ll put themselves through the indignity and discomfort of forcing fingers into eyeballs every morning to secure contact lenses.
With that in mind, why would the likes of Facebook, Google or Snapchat think they can change hearts and minds by adding the inconvenience of a USB port and nightly charging to spectacles?
Taste makers and breakers
There is only one tech company with the ability to make people overrule their common sense about what looks stylish: Apple.
I don’t write this as some kind of raving Apple fanboy — I own an iPad mini and Apple Pencil, but am otherwise firmly in the Android and PC camp — just as somebody who’s been writing about tech trends long enough to see the extraordinary effect the company has on people.
The best example of this is AirPods. When Apple first unveiled AirPods, pretty much everyone was united in the opinion that this was an ugly, impractical and expensive misfire.
Not to mention the practical concern of an AirPod slipping out the ear while running, making a break for freedom and never being heard from again.
And yet, five years later, not only are AirPods ubiquitous on public transport, but one estimate claims they’re responsible for generating Apple more revenue than companies like Adobe, Nvidia, AMD and Spotify generate in total. Yes, the exact figures and conclusion have been reasonably questioned, but there’s no doubting the fact that AirPods are big business.
They’ve also spawned hundreds of imitators which look, if anything, even more stupid than AirPods. And leaving aside the horrifying environmental impact of them all, as somebody who received some absolutely lousy LG earbuds free with a TV, I can tell you that I’m simply begging for something with a wire and power button, but there we are. The people have spoken, and despite their initial reservations, they have decided that white plastic plugging the ear canal is indeed fashionable.
That makes me pretty confident in saying that if smart glasses do have a future, then it will be because there’s a small Apple logo on the side. Not uncoincidentally, Apple is reportedly working on a set of smart glasses, with a first revision expected in 2023 before something sleeker follows afterwards.
As per usual with these theoretical products, keen Apple watchers have been keeping an eye on the company’s patents for insights into what the headset might potentially contain. Possibilities range from the fairly predictable (bone conducting audio tech) to the unexpected (photopic vision for low-light conditions) to the downright bizarre (sounds played from the direction you need to walk in), and the waters are muddied by the fact that Apple is supposed to be making an AR headset first, before moving on to a full set of smart glasses. These patents could apply to both, either or neither.
You can debate how useful these or any other theoretical AR features may be, but it seems pretty clear to me that they won’t be given a fair hearing until somebody comes up with a form factor that doesn’t make wearers into social pariahs. And that’s where Apple comes in: if it can make something as ridiculous as AirPods not only acceptable but actively desirable, then it can do the same for smart glasses.
That, in turn, will open the door for other manufacturers to mass produce smart glasses, likely for a little less money. And, if history is anything to go by, they will go on to implement innovative new features that Apple will later adopt and give mass market appeal. It’s the circle of tech life, tale as old as time.
So my advice for any company toying with smart glasses? Don’t bother until Tim Cook has worn a pair on stage in Cupertino. Otherwise you’re simply on a hiding to nothing.