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Smart specs are a solution in search of a problem

3 minute read

The Facebook logo is reflected on a woman's glasses in this photo illustration taken June 3, 2018.

LONDON, Sept 13 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Facebook (FB.O) has joined the Big Tech rush for a spot on consumers’ faces. In conjunction with European eyewear giant EssilorLuxottica (ESLX.PA), Mark Zuckerberg last week launched Ray-Ban Stories, essentially a pair of glasses with built-in camera, mic and speakers. It’s a step towards genuine augmented-reality (AR) specs that overlay graphics onto the wearer’s real-life vision. The opportunities for technology giants are in plain sight. The hard part is convincing punters the glasses are useful.

Like driverless cars, AR glasses always seem to be five years away, and are still suffering from infamous early flops: social media giant Snap (SNAP.N) took a $40 million writedown on its Spectacles brand in 2017, while Google Glass, which launched three years earlier, came with a $1,500 price tag and goofy design that earned wearers the nickname “Glassholes”. The Alphabet-owned (GOOGL.O) company had more success flogging the gizmos to businesses: warehouse order-pickers, for instance, can receive instructions direct to their headset, dispensing with bulky smartphones.

For Facebook and Apple (AAPL.O), widely reported to be working on its own smart specs, the benefits could be huge. Take Apple’s App Clips. The software allows users to access services in seconds – unlocking an e-scooter, say – without having to download the relevant app. A pair of iGlasses could let punters pay merely by looking at the scooter, with Apple taking a cut as the payment processor. A report by Deloitte and Snap also noted that AR-guided purchases were 25% less likely to be returned. Similarly, AR almost doubled the chances of a casual glance at a product turning into a sale. That means more advertising revenue for behemoths like Facebook.

There will be obstacles. A fully AR-enabled economy, with directions beamed to headsets and special offers popping up outside shops or restaurants, demands fast and ubiquitous internet connectivity, currently a problem given 5G’s lacklustre rollout. Regulators will also need persuading - Italy’s privacy watchdog wants clarity on Facebook’s protections for strangers caught in-shot.

As a parallel, tech giants point to the success of the smartwatch, another wearable device designed to keep consumers inside their networks. The problem is that smartwatches found their niche almost by accident, becoming a must-have healthcare accessory because of their ability to measure a wearer’s vital signs. By contrast, unlocking a scooter with the blink of an eye looks like a gimmick. Facebook and Apple will have to find more compelling reasons to make consumers see the world their way.

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CONTEXT NEWS

- Facebook and EssilorLuxottica on Sept. 9 launched a range of “smart” glasses, a step towards Facebook’s eventual goal of augmented-reality eyewear.

- The glasses allow wearers to listen to music, take calls, capture photos and short videos and share them across Facebook’s services using a companion app. Facebook said the glasses line, called Ray-Ban Stories, would start at $299.

- The market for wearable devices is expected to grow from $81 billion in sales in 2021 to $94 billion in 2022, according to consultancy Gartner.

Editing by Ed Cropley and Karen Kwok

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