The emergence of Facebook's collaboration with Ray-Ban to launch Stories smartglasses has finally put an exclamation point on a new category of smartglasses: the pre-augmented reality wearable segment.
And while the Facebook device isn't particularly groundbreaking in terms of features already explored by other wearables, it does distinguish itself in a few important ways. But how, with an array of smartglasses options now available to mainstream consumers, can you choose the right pair of smartglasses? Glad you asked.
Although a number of smartglasses have emerged, like North's Focals (now under Google), and the Vuzix Blade (too bulky for normal users, perfect for enterprise), just to name a couple, when it comes to truly mainstream smartglasses options, there are really only three wireless, lightweight wearables worth considering. The leading options, for now, are Snap's Spectacles 3 ($380), Amazon's Echo Frames ($249.99), and now Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories ($299). (It should also be noted that we are going to focus on Snap's Spectacles 3 instead of the latest AR version simply because regular consumers can't access the latest experimental version of Snap's wearable.)
When deciding which of the three leading choices to invest your time and money in, it's important to try to figure out how you'll use them and what's most important to you in terms of features. So let's see how they compare across the board.
In this category, Amazon's Echo Frames are immediately eliminated, as the device doesn't house cameras like Spectacles 3 and Stories. Snap's Spectacles 3 captures photos at a resolution of 1728 x 1728 pixels, and videos at 1,216 x 1,216 pixels and 60 frames per second. Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories captures photos at 2,592 x 1,944 pixels, and videos at 1,184 x 1,184 pixels and 30 frames per second.
In practice, I've found that the photos and videos from Snap's Spectacles generally came out better. Also, there's an added feature in Spectacles 3 that allows you to add 3D AR-style effects to your video footage after processing them through the Snapchat app. On the Facebook View app, you have the option of adding Instagram-style effects, but nothing immersive or 3D-like (yet). So if photos are your main concern, I'd still go with Snap's Spectacles 3 over Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories.
The category of audio is one of the most important for smartglasses because since none of these wearables offer an AR experience, audio stands in as a kind of virtual half-step in that direction. In this case, Snap's Spectacles 3, which can record audio as it records video, falls by the wayside due to the lack of other audio functions contained in the alternatives. Both Amazon's Echo Frames and Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories offer a hands-free mode that allows you to issue verbal commands to trigger various functions.
In this respect, Echo Frames stands tall above the rest because it has a full-fledged virtual assistant (Alexa) that can carry out a long list of commands triggered by your voice. By comparison, Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories really only lets you use verbal commands to take photos or videos (but I'm assuming that feature will be expanded up rather quickly). Also, both Echo Frames and Stories allow you to take calls and listen to music and podcasts through the device, making both fairly decent substitutes for a pair of earbuds, assuming you're okay with the leakage inherent in open-ear speakers. In this category, Amazon's Echo Frames wins (but Stories is running a very close second).
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the winners in the software category would be Spectacles 3 and Stories, since both are backed by companies whose livelihood depends on making the mobile app user experience as easy and frictionless as possible. Alternatively, although e-commerce giant Amazon has mastered the art of making online shopping easy, it still has a ways to go when it comes to user-friendly mobile app design that isn't squarely focused on shopping.
Between Spectacles and Stories, the winner is easy: Snapchat. Snap has been working on its Spectacles product for almost six years, so it makes sense that the company has smoothed out any rough edges of integration between its hardware and software. Also, the ability to execute the aforementioned 3D effects (as well as other Snap filters and virtual stickers) in post-processing is a powerful tool to enhance your photo and video captures. Nevertheless, Facebook View is likely being hammered at furiously to enhance its capabilities as it attempts to catch up with the Snap Spectacles experience. Winner: Snap Spectacles 3.
All three of these devices offer different yet very viable designs, however, it's incredibly difficult to beat the classic Wayfarer design made popular by Hollywood legend James Dean. Of the three, if you were to choose to wear one of the devices stripped of its technology, the Ray-Ban Stories would almost certainly be the pick. The runner-up, in terms of broad appeal, would probably be the Echo Frames, not because of build quality (which could be better), but because the frame design fits a wide selection of face shapes and can blend in with a number of fashion styles.
The reason Spectacles 3 is last on the list is because, despite the bold (nay, courageous!) design employed, the frames are more like something you'd see on a cutting-edge fashion runway show or on the bridge of the nose of some eccentric artist. It's not for everybody. Also, even if you're adventurous, the frames are on the small side and don't really fit larger faces. This category is probably the easiest win of all: Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories.
Caveat: Personally, my all-time favorite version of Spectacles is the Spectacles 2 Nico (see above), which, design-wise, is a strong competitor next to the Wayfarer frame of Stories. The only issue is that the camera footprints are so large that most people have asked me if I'm wearing "camera glasses" when I'm wearing the Nico, while I've repeatedly had to tell onlookers that my Stories smartglasses contain cameras. Both Spectacles 2 Nico (and the newer Spectacles 3) and Ray-Ban Stories devices have LED indicator lights to alert onlookers that you're recording footage, but I prefer the smaller surface footprint on the Stories device.
Well, in the realm of practicality, what that word means depends on your lifestyle. For example, if you live in a city where it rains frequently (say, Seattle or London), you'll be on constant device preservation watch because none of these devices are waterproof (yet another vote for the Snap Spectacles 2 Nico, which are IPx7 water-resistant). The Echo Frames are IPX4-rated, which should protect you from minor splashes and sweat, but you don't want to wear any of the three devices in a downpour.
As for daily use and "what can this do for me now" features, if you're a hardcore Amazon shopper and Alexa user, then Echo Frames are a no-brainer. But if tapping into the Amazon ecosystem isn't your primary concern, and you just want a cool pair of shades/glasses that can deliver both videos, photos, and audio, then the clear winner is Stories. And beyond the technical features, the biggest test for me is the battery test, that is, if I'm out and about and the battery dies, would I still wear the frames?
With Spectacles 3, the answer is no (but with Spectacles 2 Nico, the answer is a resounding "yes"). When it comes to Echo frames, the answer is "maybe," but probably not. And with Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories, I already know the answer, since I've been eyeing getting a pair of Wayfarers for years as a casual "goes with anything" pair of shades. The fact that Wayfarers now have smartglasses capabilities is just icing on the cake. (All three brands have style and color variations if your taste differs from the basics presented here.)
Ok, so it seems like Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories is the overall winner here, but the other issue has to do with trust: Which company do you trust enough to wear on your face all day?
Amazon has become a part of millions of consumer's lives, and the Echo line of speakers is only growing in terms of variations and reach (and now smart TVs have been added to the mix). Also, some of tech's leading companies trust Amazon Web Services with the task of handling data in the cloud. So whether Amazon deserves it or not, the company seems to have most of the public's trust. Similarly, while Snap isn't as broadly integrated into the lives of consumers as Amazon, it appears to have a mostly positive relationship with the public when the issue of trust comes up.
The same can't be said of Facebook, which continues to struggle with issues of trust and security, leading the company's officials to appear again before US government officials this week over a damning report on the impact its products have on users.
This last part makes picking the right device tricky, so I'll cut to the meat of it: If you don't care about the issues often raised about Facebook, then Ray-Ban Stories is the killer smartglasses wearable until Apple Glass arrives. Although if you are concerned about Facebook's policies, either Spectacles or Echo Frames are the better choice, with the advantage mostly going to Amazon's product just for the sheer range of things it can do compared to Spectacles 3.
This space is a moving target, so the landscape will likely be different in just a few months, but for now, these are the best options, and now you know what you're getting yourself into. Welcome to the age of smartglasses, it's going to be fun to see whose vision is most accurate and compelling as the space evolves toward fully AR-enabled wearables in the coming years.