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Facebook's Ray-Ban smart glasses are coming: What to expect

Mark Zuckerberg confirmed these are Facebook's next product. Just don't necessarily think "AR glasses" yet.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, when he announced Facebook's Ray-Ban partnership last year.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

At Facebook's recent earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed what we had already expected: The company's first pair of smart glasses are the next product, coming this year. 

Facebook discussed its glasses, which are made in a partnership with glasses-maker Essilor Luxottica under the Ray-Ban brand, last year during a virtual Facebook Connect conference.

"Looking ahead here, the next product release will be the launch of our first smart glasses from Ray-Ban in partnership with Essilor Luxottica," Zuckerberg said during the call. "The glasses have their iconic form factor, and they let you do some pretty neat things. I'm excited to get these into people's hands and to continue to make progress on the journey towards full augmented reality glasses in the future."

Yes, they're smart glasses. But no, they're not AR glasses -- not as far as Facebook has said so far. Here's what to expect.

Not AR glasses

Facebook's head of AR/VR hardware, Andrew Bosworth, spoke with CNET earlier this year about the glasses. He confirmed a few things for us back then: "We're being careful not to call them augmented reality glasses. When you're overlaying digital artifacts onto the world, that's really augmented reality. These aren't augmented reality glasses. However, they do a lot of the concepts we think will eventually be critical for augmented reality glasses. It's all components that people have seen before, but never all in one place. I'm being very coy about the feature set, as you can tell -- that's intentional, I'm not going to answer specifically what features it has. But I will say, one of the things that we're looking at for all of AR, starting with our smart glasses, is how can they help you be more present."

He also added that "I think they're going to help people stay connected to each other, and never feel like they're out of touch with somebody else. And also just be useful." Bosworth didn't sound interested in the glasses serving up notifications, however, and didn't confirm whether or not they'd have displays. 

Not standalone, but phone accessories

Facebook has already suggested these glasses are made to work with phones, much like many smart glasses Qualcomm has been promising will start rolling in over the next few years. But those Qualcomm glasses are AR, and use cables to transfer video data. Here, it's likely (at least if they don't have displays), they'll work wirelessly.

They'll be glasses, for sure

The Ray-Ban branding suggests that not only will these glasses look like normal glasses, they'll likely have nearly normal lenses. We don't know specifics, of course, but one of the big problems with AR glasses has been support for a range of prescription lenses, due to their often-weird lens and frame designs. 

Don't expect screens. Instead, they'll likely lean on audio

Facebook has said the glasses won't have their own displays. Audio, then, would be what Facebook leans on. Much like Amazon's Echo Frames, Bose Frames or Razer's Anzu glasses, these will probably focus on audio as the immersive tech of the moment. Facebook recently created its own live audio rooms and spaces, matching similar efforts from Twitter and apps like Clubhouse. Facebook Reality Labs, which is pursuing a more advanced true augmented reality headset, sees spatial audio as a key piece of the puzzle in smart glasses. Audio is also a more achievable step in the short term. Facebook could experiment with assistant features and use the glasses to connect to audio spaces.

Will they have cameras?

Facebook is still working out its privacy policy on wearable cameras. While camera data isn't shared on Oculus Quest virtual reality headsets, we don't know whether Facebook would go down a Snap Spectacle-like road with camera-glasses. We don't know yet.

Facebook's future wearable plans include a motion-sensing watch and sensor-rich AR glasses

Ambitions run high for where Facebook plans to go next with smart wearables. The company's testing sensor arrays for future AR glasses, and is looking into wrist-worn neural input technology as a key interface for VR and AR devices down the road. There are also reported plans for a smartwatch next year. Zuckerberg and Facebook have indicated that the eventual goal is to have VR devices evolve into AR glasses, or have the two technologies increasingly dovetail. 

But also, these Ray-Ban glasses could simply be about Facebook diversifying its approach to wearable and ambient computing. 

The road to AR glasses could take most of this decade, while companies like Apple, Microsoft, Snapchat and others pursue similar goals. The Ray-Ban glasses coming this year will be the first step, but they likely won't do quite as much as you think.