Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg has long been touting the upcoming release of full-fledged augmented reality glasses, with expectations pegged to sometime in 2023.
Until then, the company asks the public to consider a similar, but distinct device — its newly arrived Ray-Ban Stories smartglasses, a product developed in collaboration with eyewear giant EssilorLuxxotica.
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The differences are fundamental: AR glasses are visual in nature, with embedded screens that can layer information or images over the wearer’s view of the real world. The new Ray-Bans are camera-equipped glasses that do not feature any sort of digital display, since their raison d’être is more about capturing images and video or listening to audio content. But they are related products, with the latter a stepping stone to the former.
Between the two, the first smartglasses are clearly lower-hanging fruit. The camera and audio components have been readily available for years, thanks to advancements in smartphone development. Even so, fitting it all into a slim frame that’s appealing to non-techie consumers was another story, and that exploration directly informs how Facebook will approach the AR version.
In a conversation with WWD, Alex Himel, vice president of augmented reality at Facebook Reality Labs, laid out the goals for Ray-Ban Stories: “We knew that we wanted to have a great form factor. We wanted people to like the way they look … and feel comfortable, so we packed as much technology as we could while keeping the form factor looking great,” he said. “And you know, we wanted to partner with Rocco [Basilico] here, chief wearables officer from EssilorLuxottica, and with Ray-Ban. How better to start than the most iconic glasses in the world, sold by the biggest and best company in the world at doing that?”
The experience of developing the unit was a major learning opportunity for both parties.
For Facebook, marrying design to its vision for the futuristic device is crucial. It seems to understand that functionality alone won’t spur adoption of faceworn AR. However, it does feel that it has some great use cases in mind for it: “We think that there’s another class [of gadget] that’s going to emerge that you can use — mobile on the go — that enables you to do things, like have more immersive experiences,” Himel explained.
He cited a few examples, like being able to visit his parents in New York without physically traveling, a complicated prospect now due to COVID-19. Facebook has been working on approaches to virtual visits that offer a real sense of presence, unlike today’s Zoom calls or FaceTime chats.
Other robust AR features could include visual, turn-by-turn navigation placed directly in view, similar to the way heads-up displays are used by pilots, as well as more immersive gaming environments and other entertainment or activities.
The notion has the tech set dreaming of Iron Man-level features, with a virtual Jarvis ready to assist at any moment. When the AR frames arrive, the reality probably won’t come anywhere near that, at least not initially. But even if it could, it would do no good if people aren’t willing to put the glasses on their faces to begin with. That makes design critical to the viability of these next-generation glasses.
Enter EssilorLuxottica and Ray-Ban Stories, which effectively offers a testbed that gives both companies experience in how to translate tech-driven glasses in fashion’s terms.
The project was the first smartglasses launch for Luxottica, which approached the work like a new eyewear collection, Basilico told WWD. “Things like style, comfort and design are things that we take very seriously.” And so the team brought that sensibility to the collaboration, resulting in a product that is “immediately recognizable as the original Wayfarers that we first introduced in 1952,” he said.
But it’s not just another debut to Basilico. Rather, he believes the Facebook project marks a pivotal moment for his company.
“I compare this partnership with the partnership that Luxottica signed with Giorgio Armani in the ’80s, which was to create the first pair of designer brand eyewear,” he continued. “We launched that, like our own new category. Glasses became more than just an accessory, but like a fashion statement.”
Now the Luxottica’s wearables chief sees the launch of Ray-Ban Stories as another category-defining event. The company was always interested in this space, he continued, “but, for me, there was no better partner than Facebook.” Creating connected eyewear that’s compelling — that is both universal and yet very, very personal — requires a careful balance demanding both companies’ expertise.
“Eyewear is a very delicate category, [as] something that you put on your face and change completely the way that you look,” he said. The process itself was challenging as well, not just because of the design and technical aspects, but also due to COVID-19 and its effects on production, particularly when it came to building factories.
Now that so much of the ramp-up and preparation are behind him, Basilico could see possibly extending smartglasses to other brands someday. For now, though, this first initiative is fully focused on Ray-Ban — to the extent that he believes it will become the new icon for the brand, from a product standpoint.
“But, you know, the sky’s the limit,” he added.
Naturally, EssilorLuxottica is best positioned to be Facebook’s fashion partner for its AR face tech, too, whether for some sort of Ray-Ban AR glasses or another option from Luxottica’s proprietary labels or 20 licensed brands.
“We’re definitely committed to a multigenerational, multiyear partnership working together,” Facebook’s Himel said, but stopping short of confirming an AR collaboration. Either way, all signs point to Ray-Ban Stories being just the first, but not the last wearable from the companies.
“We’re going to be introducing technology into these great-looking glasses when we think it’s ready, when we think that it will be delightful for people and when we can achieve that form factor,” he added. “Our long-term vision is to have that fully immersive AR experience where virtual objects are overlaid on the physical world that you’re looking at, where you’re not taken away from the people that you’re with, or the world that you’re in.
“But you know, it’s going to take time for that technology to be ready.“