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13 September 2021

Why Facebook has designs on your face

The social media company’s camera-equipped sunglasses are an attempt to combat declining interest.

By Will Dunn

Some photographers still prefer to use film cameras, especially in portraits, because people respond not only to the person taking the picture, but the camera they’re taking it with. In front of a film camera, on which images can’t be instantly viewed and shared, subjects are less guarded, more themselves.

The new camera-equipped sunglasses unveiled by Facebook and Ray-Ban on 9 September are at the opposite end of that scale. They won’t take a picture without a Facebook account connected, and to take someone’s picture hands-free, you stare at their face (they can’t see your eyes, because you’re wearing sunglasses) and say “Hey Facebook, take a photo”. This sounds ideal if you want to capture the kind of uncomfortable smile that people presumably give Mark Zuckerberg all the time. (You can also press a button on the side if you prefer to look like you’re spying on them – which, if you haven’t asked their permission or at least made it obvious that you’re taking a picture, you are.) 

Even Facebook seems to be aware that consumers are uncomfortable about having FaceGlasses attached to their FaceFaces. The glasses come in a Ray-Ban case and are designed to look as much like conventional Ray-Bans as possible. The Facebook logo is nowhere to be seen on the product itself.

The company has clearly studied the public reaction to Google Glass, which was launched in 2013 and swiftly banned from bars and restaurants in San Francisco and Seattle, the cities that are home to the US tech community (and where Glass users became known by some as “Glassholes”). People didn’t hate Google Glass because it was another camera – cameras were already ubiquitous and people had adjusted to that. They hated it because it was a Google camera, and its purpose was clearly tied to the surveillance technologies from which the world’s largest advertising company makes its money.

This was confirmed when Snap (the company that makes Snapchat, and which has rebuffed acquisition attempts by Facebook and Google) launched its own camera-equipped glasses in 2016: there was none of the anger and derision that Google Glass had prompted.

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It’s not only the public that have concerns about more widespread Facebook-connected cameras. Italy’s data protection authority, Garante, has asked for clarification about whether the products offer sufficient protection to the privacy of people who haven’t consented to their image, voice and whereabouts being collected and shared on the world’s biggest social network (especially people who are too young to join it themselves). This is why Facebook released a set of flimsy guidelines (including “be a good community member”) for Ray-Ban Stories. It may also be why Facebook hasn’t yet implemented facial recognition into the glasses, although Andrew Bosworth, the vice-president of augmented and virtual reality at Facebook, recently told employees: “the benefits are so clear”.     

So why has Facebook gone to the trouble and considerable expense of making a product that already existed, and which consumers and regulators only find acceptable if it’s not made by a panopticon megacorporation? 

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One reason could be that it’s simply to prevent a big rival from selling smartglasses at scale. The Ray-Ban deal puts Facebook in a business relationship with Luxottica, which dominates the market in putting things on people’s faces. Whichever sunglasses you buy – Armani, Chanel, Ray-Ban, Oliver Peoples, Versace, Tiffany, Oakley, Burberry, and on and on – you are actually buying Luxottica sunglasses, and if you buy them from Sunglass Hut, David Clulow, the John Lewis optical department or a host of other chains, you are buying them from a shop Luxottica owns or operates. 

It could also be seen as a move in Facebook’s long-running battle with Apple. Unlike Apple, which makes more than 80 per cent of its revenue from hardware and the rest from services, Facebook is an advertising company that makes only a tiny fraction – less than 2 per cent – of its money from devices. This gives Apple a lot of control over Facebook’s future, and the iPhone manufacturer’s recent decision to give its customers more privacy has been a sharp reminder of the power of devices over apps. 

But Facebook also needs new ideas, because – unlike Ray-Ban – Facebook is no longer in fashion. During 2020, despite massive surges in internet use during lockdown, the number of Americans using Facebook fell over the year. This urgency is compounded by the fact that most of what people see on Facebook and Instagram is not built by developers for money, but shared by other people, for free.

This makes Facebook uniquely vulnerable among the Big Tech firms. Google owns the dominant technology in web browsing and the fastest-growing laptop segment; Microsoft owns the dominant (desktop) operating system and swathes of IT contracts; Apple sells the world’s most popular range of phones. The reliance on its users has allowed Facebook to grow phenomenally quickly – it reached $50bn a year in revenue in just 14 years, less than half the time that reportedly Apple and Microsoft took to reach the same (inflation-adjusted) milestone – but its lack of a distinct technology platform may now be its biggest weakness. More than 10,000 Facebook employees are now working on devices, most of which – as augmented and virtual reality technologies – will sit directly in front of the users’ eyes. For Zuckerberg, this represents the dawn of an exciting new “metaverse”. But he will need to persuade Facebook’s users that his vision – a future not only of greater surveillance but of screens from which it is impossible to look away – is as good for them as it is for him.

[See also: Bitcoin’s gold rush was always an illusion]