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Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.
Photo: Facebook

Facebook’s Ray-Ban glasses are a big deal for AR

A photo of Facebook’s new Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses.

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: Facebook's new smart glasses aren't that smart, but that's exactly why they're a big deal. Also: Amazon is now making its own smart TVs.

Today's the day: Please join me for Future of Voice, a free online event exploring what's new and what's next for voice, featuring Pandora Senior Product Manager Ananya Sharan, Sonos VP Joseph Dureau and Xandra CEO Zach Johnson. It kicks off at 12 p.m. PT. RSVP now.

The Big Story

Facebook just released its North Star for AR hardware

At first glance, Facebook's new Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses aren't actually all that smart. They don't feature a display, so you won't get any actual AR from them. The integrated open-ear audio supports stereo Bluetooth playback, but not spatial audio. And the on-board assistant, which can be invoked with a "Hey Facebook" wake phrase, is at launch limited to triggering hands-free photo and video capture.

Facebook executives nonetheless seem to believe that the device is a really big deal for the company. "We do think of this, though it is not augmented reality, as a critical step on the path," I was told by Facebook's VP of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth this week. After trying a loaned review unit of the glasses for a few days, I do have to agree — and for a reason I didn't anticipate at all.

Ray-Ban Stories glasses look and feel like Ray-Ban glasses. Wearing them doesn't at all feel like wearing an AR headset, or even a more glasses-like AR device such as the Nreal Light that you'll really want to take off when you're done with whatever task you were using it for.

  • Instead, you can wear these for hours, occasionally take a picture, get an audible alert from your phone or listen to music. "These are glasses that happen to have technology," said Facebook Reality Labs product director Matthew Simari. "They're not technology that looks kind of like glasses."
  • To achieve this, Facebook put a big emphasis on optimizing the on-board technology. The glasses themselves can be used for up to six hours under normal conditions, and people can recharge them on the go with a portable charging case.
  • Ray-Ban Stories are powered by an optimized Snapdragon processor that isn't powerful enough to run complicated on-device apps. Instead, Facebook offers photo- and video-editing in the mobile companion app.
  • All of this allowed the two companies to build a pair of smart glasses that weighs just five grams more than the original Ray-Ban glasses the frames are based on. Matteo Battiston, head of design for Ray-Ban maker EssilorLuxottica, resorted to a metaphor borrowed from Italian cooking to describe the optimization process: "Any time you have a lemon, you squeeze all the lemon."

Making true AR glasses look this good won't be easy, admitted Bosworth. "AR glasses are going to have some tougher design moments," he said. "Weight is going to be such a challenge. The thermal, the compute is going to be such a challenge to factor in."

  • That's not to say that smart glasses as a category on its own won't evolve. For starters, Facebook is likely going to add more functionality to the Facebook Assistant running on Ray-Ban Stories.
  • And Bosworth also told me that non-AR smart glasses may be a lot more accessible to a broader set of consumers than true AR ones. "When you add more functionality, you also add cost and weight, and those are by nature going to be exclusionary to some people," he said. "I think this product can have relevance for a long time, it could definitely coexist with AR glasses in the future."

But the design approach could shape the future of AR, with the pared-back design of Ray-Ban Stories being something that other devices aspire to for years to come. "This is going to be the North Star for us for a while, in terms of design," Bosworth said. "As we add more functionality, we're going to have to do it on the value side. It's going to be a strain from the design and comfort side. I think this is a high watermark, and it's a place that we're going to work really hard as an industry to get back to."

For more on Ray-Ban Stories, also check out my story on how Facebook prepared for the next "glasshole" backlash.

Overheard

"If I did this kind of speculation, I would say this is a perfect video to tease AR and VR." —Benedict Evans, responding to Apple's September event invite video.

"It's okay to be excited about Apple entering VR/AR. I'm excited too! But if you're going around spreading that Apple will single handedly save the entire industry when they've had literally NOTHING to show ... you might be in a cult." —AR whiz kid Lucas Rizzotto, speaking truth to fanboyism.

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Watch Out

Why Amazon is launching its own TVs

After years of working with third-party brands, Amazon is switching up its smart TV playbook: The company will begin selling two lines of Amazon-branded Fire TVs to U.S. consumers next month, including a new Fire TV Omni series that comes with integrated far-field voice control for easy access to Alexa.

  • Fire TV Omni models will be priced $410 and up, and the microphone-free Fire TV 4-Series will begin at $370. Amazon is also selling two Fire TV Omni models with Dolby Vision, with a 75-inch model selling for $1,100. These new Fire TVs will sell both on Amazon.com as well as at Best Buy.
  • Amazon announced these new TV sets in conjunction with a few other fall hardware and software updates, which include a Fire TV Stick 4K Max that's optimized for the company's Luna cloud gaming service.

Amazon says this will accelerate the rollout of new features, and that's definitely how its head of entertainment devices and services, Daniel Rausch, painted the move. "There are some really hard technical challenges to accomplish here, and we get to invent things faster and in a deeper and more highly integrated way when we get to build something ourselves," he said.

  • Rausch pointed to far-field voice as an example of a feature that Amazon first pioneered on the Fire TV Cube, but is now bringing to its own TVs. In a few demos, he showed how people will be able to use the feature to launch video playback, discover new things to watch and access their home security cameras.

But such features are available on third-party Fire TVs with far-field voice, with Toshiba being one of the first brands to add microphones to its TV sets as well.

  • "We're definitely not keeping anything exclusive to Amazon-branded TVs," Rausch said.

So why introduce Amazon as a TV brand? The truth is that Amazon's efforts to establish itself as a player in the smart TV space have been mixed. The company has sold tens of millions of Fire TV sticks, but has not seen the same success with actual TV sets.

  • The U.S. smart TV market has long been dominated by Samsung, with TCL, Vizio and Hisense each vying to unseat the market leader. TCL briefly succeeded in 2019, benefitting from its close alignment with Roku.
  • Amazon Fire TVs have been available in the U.S. under the Toshiba and Insignia brands, and consumers will be able to buy Pioneer-branded Fire TVs soon as well. "We're super happy with our progress with partners," Rausch told me this week. However, none of these brands has become a TCL-like breakout success story.
  • The market for licensed TV operating systems is only getting more crowded: Comcast is looking to license its X1 system to TV makers, and LG has been able to sign up a number of brands for its own webOS platform.
  • Amazon's efforts are complicated by a long-running dispute with Google that prevents manufacturers of Android phones and Android TVs from also making Fire TVs.

All of this has led to a situation in which the Amazon brand may actually be the company's best bet to gain smart TV market share. The move also fits in with a closer integration across devices. By more closely tying Alexa to Fire TV, the company is making it ever more obvious that people are using an Amazon device, no matter whose factory floor it was made on.

Fast Forward

  • Apple's AR headset will require wireless tethering. The device's custom-made chips reportedly won't be powerful enough to run more advanced AR and VR apps.
  • TV streaming service Locast shut down after a court defeat. Being a nonprofit ultimately didn't help the Aereo successor.
  • Roku is getting its first original movie. "Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas" is billed as a holiday encore to the canceled NBC show "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."
  • HBO Max is launching in Europe. The service will go live in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Spain and Andorra next month. No word on bigger European markets yet.
  • Roblox is getting a Twenty One Pilots concert experience. It's the second major concert for the platform after Lil Nas X partied with avatars last November.
  • Netflix is getting an interactive horror movie next month. The cast is made up of a bunch of WWE wrestlers, because why not?
  • Hulu is getting more expensive. The streaming service will raise prices by $1 in October. Still a lot cheaper than cable.

Auf Wiedersehen

I have a very important update to share about those Reese's Puffs AR cereal boxes I mentioned in Next Up a few weeks back: I found a box at my grocery store last night, and discovered that it's actually a series of collectibles. One of the boxes turns into an AR drum machine if you point your phone at it, while two others unlock different synthesizers. I guess I'll have to make some room in our kitchen cabinets. Cereal for lunch, anyone?

A MESSAGE FROM CONFLUENCE

Meet less but collaborate more! Confluence is the alternative to endless meetings. Kickstart projects with templates, and stay in the loop with real time collaboration features. Clear meetings off your plate with Confluence. Get started for free!

Learn More

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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