Why Facebook’s Ray-Ban smartglasses will fail, with Irena Cronin from Infinite Retina

Facebook ray ban smartglasses

A week ago Facebook announced it was working with Ray-Ban on a multi-year deal to build and ship smartglasses. Mark Zuckerberg says they’re “the next step on the road to augmented reality glasses.”

So why does Irena Cronin say they fail?

She is the CEO of Infinite Retina, an xR consultancy, and a co-author of “The Infinite Retina: Spatial Computing, Augmented Reality, and how a collision of new technologies are bringing about the next tech revolution.”

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat about Facebook’s smartglasses, Project Aria, North (which Google acquired), Snap and its Spectacles, and Apple’s coming smartglasses product.

Get the full audio, video, and transcript of our conversation below …

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

John Koetsier: Irena Cronin, who is the CEO of Infinite Retina, says Facebook’s new Ray-Ban smartglasses will fail. Why? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

So, about a week ago, Facebook announced it was doing a deal with Ray-Ban, a multi-year deal to build and ship smartglasses. Now Mark Zuckerberg says they are “the next step on the road to augmented reality glasses.”

So why does Irena Cronin say they’ll fail? She’s the CEO of Infinite Retina. She’s also the author of the Infinite Retina: Spatial Computing, Augmented Reality, and How a Collision of New Technologies are Bringing about the Next Tech Revolution. Irena, welcome!

 Irena Cronin: Hi, thanks for having me. 

John Koetsier: Hey, it’s a real pleasure to have you here. Let’s just get right to it. What is Facebook announcing? What are they talking about? 

Irena Cronin

Irena Cronin, CEO at Infinite Retina

Irena Cronin: Okay, so sometime next year, what they announced is that they will be coming out with a first version of Ray-Ban smartglasses, and then perhaps in the future they will be iterating on some new versions for that. Although Project Aria, which is something they’ve been working with for a number of years, there will be a true augmented reality headset that we expect will come out three to four years from now. 

John Koetsier:  Why do you say it’ll fail? 

Irena Cronin: In coming out with a new product, any new product, you have to have a pretty large group of people that are willing to buy it for a feature set that is compelling to them. So, if you do the market research and you see what came before, and what people actually want — and I have something to say about that in a second — what people actually want from technology, and then you see if there’s enough of a market and then you go and you create this thing. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Irena Cronin: Now people can say people don’t always know what they want. This is true, especially with new types of technologies. But there are certain things when it comes to practical uses and apps that people have used for practical reasons. And we could go off of that to see whether or not someone would find something like this useful. Basically there have been some cases in the past, such as North, which was bought by Google…

John Koetsier: Yep.

Irena Cronin: … with their Focals glasses, they were 1.0. And then Snap came out with two different versions —  granted they weren’t like super duper, you know, overlay kinds of stuff, but it was still in the same realm of what you might call smartglasses in some way. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. I bought version 1.0 of those actually, and used them probably about, maybe 24 times.

Irena Cronin: Yeah. So, you know, you completely got the arc of like what you used them for, and anything that feels kind of like a fashion kind of thing, the danger is that it could be seen as a trend. And if it’s seen as a trend, you go super duper crazy about it for a while, and then you put it on the shelf and it’s done, right? 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Irena Cronin: So, basically the biggest bone I have to pick here is with what’s actually being offered for usability with the glasses. Now, I love Ray-Bans. I have a couple of Ray-Bans. I don’t care how much they cost, I’m going to buy ’em. I like ’em.

You’ll want to package it though with something else that, with an offering — of course, it’s going to be more expensive than the typical Ray-Ban — that gives you supposed other super powers. Or let’s say these are mini super powers ’cause it’s not true AR.

You’ve got to ask yourself, well, like what exactly can you do with something that doesn’t use three dimensionality, isn’t 6DOF (six degrees of freedom),  definitely not anywhere near what you would expect for 3DOF for AR in terms of it being overlay, which is basically text that can give you an idea of directions. So whether you’re walking or driving, if you need to get directions, any kind of pop-up notification, maybe you could read some minor kinds of email up there, but it’s certainly not, in my point of view, the most compelling way to be able to do these types of things.

So that’s a major reason.

John Koetsier: Yeah, I mean, if we look at what’s been done for smartglasses so far. You mentioned North, you mentioned Snap —  I always called them Snaptacles, I know that’s wrong, but — and a couple of others.

What we’ve seen from some of them is the early ones, okay, we’ll stick a camera in them and the camera will see what you see. And what we see from some of the later ones is some level of kind of heads-up display or something like that, right. Some kind of, it’s almost a smartwatch, like notifications of what’s going on from your phone, right? Not useful apart from a phone, largely. And then a few like purpose-built for maybe cyclists or swimmers or something like that, and have specific sport-specific information to tell people, maybe about laps or speed or whatever, those sorts of things.

https://twitter.com/hbarra/status/1306278791669579776

What do you expect that the Facebook Ray-Ban model will have in terms of a feature set? 

Irena Cronin: Okay. So I can tell you what I don’t think it’s going to have, let’s start with that. So it’s not going to be color. There were a pair of glasses that Intel put out that were killed about a year and a half ago. They still didn’t figure out how to incorporate color into this kind of flat device … what I call flat vision. It’s not three dimensional.

John Koetsier: Yep.

Irena Cronin: And it would take literally millions of dollars for them to figure out, so they killed those glasses.

So, I can tell you right now, very little chance it’ll be color. So it’s going to be monochrome. I don’t know if it’s gonna be black and white or some kind of in that spectrum. It’s not going to be three dimensions, so it’s not going to be anything but perhaps an overlay that is capable.

You’re not going to have really massive even kinds of, like you’re saying, video tape, or like you could maybe take pictures with it, video tape — um, videotape video — video! [Laughter].

Yeah, you won’t be able to take long amounts of video with it. That’s also why Snap was like, what was it, 10 seconds or something like that? 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Irena Cronin: Like there’s a reason for it. It takes a lot of battery power. The thing gets overheated. You need some place to put it. Who’s going to pay for that …  so, like okay, so that’s going to be really, really limited.

So let’s say you want to video something and then place it on Facebook. Okay, cool. But how much harder is that than taking your phone out and doing that? 

John Koetsier: Exactly. I can pick up my phone and there I go, right? 

Irena Cronin: Yeah. So, what I do think it’s going to have, so I was explaining this to someone the other day … this is something more than along the lines of what I call luxury tax. So it’s basically when you have a company that decides to put a boutique on Madison Avenue and is willing to eat the cost of it because of the marketing capability that it gives, and the kind of like visual that someone gets in their head of how wonderful and luxurious this is.

So it has that appeal, but in terms of getting it down to ROI — how much you’re actually making off that — you’re losing money.

John Koetsier: Yep. 

Irena Cronin:

So I think what this thing is about, is trying to get some kind of appeal from consumers to get them to understand that AR, true AR in the future, is actually a thing.

And you need to put on some kind of glasses to do the AR. So it’s kind of like a primer to get people ready to want to put the glasses on, because that’s a question everybody has — do people really want to put on glasses even to do like great AR? So it’s a primer to get them to do that. It’s a kind of like test case, so they’re eating through money to do a test case to see a lot of things, to maybe prepare themselves for when they actually have the AR glass, so that the functionality that you would get from it, I don’t think would be worth the extra cost…

John Koetsier: Well it’s interesting. Because honestly, buying the Spectacles from Snap kind of turned me off a little bit because they had so little functionality, right? They were able to do so little and I would worry…

Irena Cronin: I think they’re cute though, right? They’re very cute.

John Koetsier: They were uncomfortable, they hurt my nose.

Irena Cronin: There you go.

John Koetsier:  And I felt kind of conspicuous with these odd yellow things on my face and with a dot there, sometimes with the red light shining out of it kind of Terminator-like, but …

… the problem I would wonder if Facebook would have, is if they release something and sure, they’re trying to prime the pump for AR and augmented reality and everything like that, but if it doesn’t have enough capability, then you run the risk of getting into … you went up the hype cycle and now you’re in the trough of disillusionment. 

Irena Cronin: Yeah. So, I think what they’re paying mostly for, and they’re obviously, I believe they’re completely aware of all of these risks, right?

John Koetsier: Sure.

Irena Cronin: I mean, they’re paying for that recognition to Ray-Ban. To have that connection to the consumer class…

John Koetsier: Yep.

Irena Cronin: … that they do not have. I mean, if you look at the Oculus headset and even with Oculus 2, which is super great at a wonderful cost point, the low version is $299. Even with that, they haven’t really hit the mass consumer scale.

John Koetsier: No, no, but it’s a pretty good piece of kit, actually. 

Irena Cronin: Yeah. It is. But I mean, in terms of the regular everyday person, how do you reach them?

Well, this is a way to say, ‘We’re actually a consumer goods company … 

John Koetsier: Yep, yep. 

Irena Cronin: … we have mass appeal.’ Apple already has that. Apple just has to put out a product. It doesn’t even have to be the best product, and they’ve got consumers buying it and it can charge a premium, right?

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. 

Irena Cronin: So they have that capability. They have that branding and marketing capability, it’s built in already. Facebook does not. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. And that you can see in the video that we showed off the top, I mean, they’re bending over backwards to say, ‘This is not a geeky device. This is not high tech. This is normal. This is … in fact, it’s classic. It’s old-fashioned even. You know, we have black and white pictures of people wearing this thing. It’s amazing!’ But let’s get to what you think the feature set will be. What do you envision the features will be? 

Irena Cronin: Okay. So, I think that you’ll be able to read text fairly easily. I’m not sure about the voice capability because that takes quite a bit of money-crunching technology and coordination. Maybe there’s some … I would love it if there was some voice capability because that would make it more interactive. I don’t think they’re going to have that.

You will be able to possibly see flat visuals. So 2D visuals overlaid in front of you in monochrome, in some kind of monochrome. Maybe you’ll be able to read your Facebook account in monochrome, so you’ll be able to see your Facebook account. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Irena Cronin:  But you’re not going to be able to type into it, right? So… [crosstalk].

John Koetsier: Unless you have the voice capability there, in which case you might be able to speak that.

Irena Cronin: Right.

John Koetsier: I don’t know, that’s possible. It reminds me a little bit of some of the Echo devices from Amazon, right? I mean, I joked about one, I think it was a smartwatch that had Alexa embedded and I was like, ‘Talk to the hand’ right?

Irena Cronin: Yeah.  

John Koetsier: Now you’re talking to the face. 

Irena Cronin: Yeah, no, I mean there have been great strides in voice-to-text recognition, right, and to also be able to have it come out correctly. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Irena Cronin:  A company that does it as well as I think as possible is Otter. But even then, I have to go in and I have to fix some things. 

John Koetsier: 100%.

Irena Cronin: So it’s not, you know, it’s not ready. You have to go in and edit it. Well I’m not going to edit that off my glasses. So, that’s basically what I see … text, 2D overlay which is monochrome, possibly voice — but I don’t think so — and notifications. So you want to get your notifications just like on your Apple watch, you know you get a notification if you have emails, get a notification if you get a call …

John Koetsier: It’s like we don’t have enough places to get notifications. 

Irena Cronin: Right. Right, right. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a lot of duplication.

There’s a lot of ways of doing it better. So, I really don’t think this is a highly functional pair of smartglasses. I think for a first kind of pass, it’s more like a test. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Irena Cronin: They’re doing a massive test. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. I can see that. I can see that. I mean, I am interested in what they’re doing with Project Aria, which is a research device that they’re giving to their employees. That also does not have augmented reality capabilities, so probably not six degrees of freedom either. It’s also not for sale, but it will capture video, audio, it has eye tracking and location data, which is interesting.

I mean, if anybody is scared about Facebook and data, there are these people going to be walking around, Facebook employees, clearly marked — and not going in bathrooms, they made that clear — but they will be capturing audio. They’ll be capturing video. You know, human data collection is like mapping the roads or something like that … the backpackers for Google Maps. But that could be interesting potentially. I want to ask you…

Irena Cronin: Oh, but can I just stop you for a second? Don’t be [unclear] on Project Aria glasses that are coming out in three or four years isn’t going to be fully AR capable. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Yep. 

Irena Cronin: There are indications that it can even be 6DOF. So, I have a lot of positive feelings towards that pair of glasses.

John Koetsier: Okay. And that’s … you said three to four years out. 

Irena Cronin: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. So, let’s talk about what would be a good first attempt at smartglasses. So we talked about ones that didn’t really work … some features here or there, Snap. We talked about North. You’re talking about what you expect to see from Facebook and Ray-Ban.

What would be compelling in the area of smartglasses for you? 

Irena Cronin: Okay. So if you do want to make that interim jump between having no smartglasses and having full AR capability, those type of glasses, then you want to do something like smartglasses, but you want to have something that actually has mass appeal and that regular everyday people would say, ‘Yeah, I wear prescription glasses. I might as well try this.’

Even people who don’t wear prescription glasses, you know, with Ray-Bans, their sunglasses. So you need to wear sunglasses, so why not? Let’s try that. You want to have that kind of appeal. You do have to put in the extra mile to make that thing have color. I really think no one wants to go back to TVs that are black and white, right?

I don’t want to go back to a computer that’s black and white. I remember the days when I had a black and white computer. 

John Koetsier: Mac SE.

Irena Cronin: And you give that back to me, I’ll say I don’t want to even open that thing up, all right. So, you’re telling me, ‘Oh, it’s something completely new. It’s new technology. It’ll get there.’ Well, I don’t want to see something in monochrome, you know, to me, this is not compelling enough.

So they’d have to put in the money to get that done. And it’s not only money, it’s time, because it hasn’t been all figured out yet. But I think in figuring that out, they’ll figure out a whole bunch of other things. They have to be able to make things smaller. They have to make the battery life longer when you’re dealing with color, and also how it gets stored.

So there’s a number of issues that have to do that. But if you want to do that, it’s possible you could figure that out in a year and a half. And that’s well before some of these major AR headsets come out. That’s one thing.

The other thing is I would definitely have it connected to voice. I am a huge proponent of using voice. I try to, you know, I would love to do this on my computer all the time and just give it commands and have things done. And you could do that, it just doesn’t work that well right now. But I envision a day when you’ll be able to do that, and you’ll also be able to hear a voice coming back that gives you proactive kinds of advice. 

John Koetsier: Yep. 

Irena Cronin: That anticipates what you need, so it would have that aspect as well. I think it’s perfectly fine to have smartglasses that have color and full voice capability — but with AI obviously — and a nice feature factor. If you have those two things, I think there’s a possibility that a mass group of people would buy it and it would be a success. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. So you’re saying basically that feature set does not need to initially include AR, augmented reality. When does that become something that they need to have? Second, third, fourth generation, something like five, six, seven years from now?

Irena Cronin: Okay. So the biggest advantage that you get from having fully fledged 3D AR is that it’s no longer overly 2D. I can tell you right now in the enterprise market, what logistics and manufacturing had to deal with for a number of years was 2D overlay and they were calling that augmented reality, although it really wasn’t. 

John Koetsier: Yep.

Irena Cronin: And now they have the capability for 3D. It makes a huge amount of difference, depending on the kinds of tasks that you want to do.

So, and this is going way beyond entertainment, you know, because obviously you want to do entertainment. Yeah, sure, you gotta have 3D, I mean, what are you going to do with 2D overlay? It’s very boring. 

John Koetsier: Side scrolling games.

Irena Cronin: Oh that thing that I could touch to pinch with [unclear]. It brings things more to life. You can have 3D visualization maps. So you’re trying to figure out where to go and you don’t want this like ribbon thing or arrow thing that you have with your phone, you know, turn here or whatever, go that way. You could actually have it in 3D.

You could visualize your particular environment in 3D and move through it so that you don’t get lost. All kinds of, you know, you want to talk retail, everybody’s shopping at home now, you want to see what the darn thing looks like. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Irena Cronin: Really quickly. You could use that in 3D. You could move it around and see what the ingredients are for packaging and all that kind of stuff. So, it just … it enlarges the use set. And I always see things in an extremely practical way.

It’s got to have a practical use. It can’t be just shiny and you know, the best in tech. Everyday people have to have some use for it, otherwise it’s just not going to sell to enough people. And that’s where the crux of this all is. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, one of the features that I really want would be totally privacy unsafe. I want to be able to remember the names of everybody that I’ve ever talked to. And so it would have to connect to a whole database of everybody and say, ‘Oh yeah, that is Irena Cronin’ when I see you three years from now on the convention floor, somewhere at some in-person conference — we’ll see if that ever happens again, but …  

Irena Cronin: I do think that’s going to happen. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Irena Cronin:  But what you brought up is that you need to have enough people to have that device, so that you’re not … and you’re not talking to the device and linking the person’s face together with it. It’s that there’s a capability where people opt in and say, ‘recognize me’ and that people have the device, it just automatically pops up.

So you might not even know that person, and the person’s name pops up and information or whatever.

But you need to have enough people using that for it to make sense.

John Koetsier: Yeah. Interesting. Okay, last part I want to get to, and that is, we’ve already mentioned the company, obviously, it’s a $64 million question … Apple. We know Apple is working on smartglasses. We see the steady stream of patents that’s coming through that are related to smartglasses. We’re pretty sure that Apple believes along with big segments of the tech industry, that smartglasses are the next smartphone. Whether they’ll be as ubiquitous or not, that remains to be seen, but they’re kind of the next major computing platform.

Where do you see Apple in this in terms of timing and capability? 

Irena Cronin: Okay. So when you say smartglasses for Apple, that’s obviously different than the Facebook Ray-Ban smartglasses, right?

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Irena Cronin: So I think they’re going to land sometime in, as it’s been leaked out, in 2023. The other version that people have been talking about in 2022 is this kind of like hybridized version of AR/VR, where the technology isn’t exactly clear what that’s gonna look like. That’s certainly not going to be full fledged ARs, whereas we’re seeing for the 2023 version. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Irena Cronin: For the 2023 version, I do anticipate that it’s going to be color. You’re going to have full augmented reality, so it’s holographic. So it’s three dimensional. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Irena Cronin: It’s gonna definitely be voice activated and tied into AI with the new Siri that they’ve built for it.

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Irena Cronin: So it’s, it is the version that I am looking for. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. Interesting. Well, that is kind of the holy grail in technology right now and we know Facebook’s working on it. We know Apple’s working on it. Google has multiple irons in the fire there, and of course there are other participants in the space as well. Irena, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been a real pleasure chatting. 

Irena Cronin: Thank you so much. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. For everybody else, hey, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier.  I really appreciate you being along for the ride. By the way, I just published episode 100 of the TechFirst podcast earlier this morning. This will be like episode 103 … we go quickly here.

And I have a little contest for that, so check out episode 100. There is some money available, potentially, you may see. So you’ll be able to get a full transcript of this very soon at JohnKoetsier.com. You’ll see the story on Forbes as well. And of course the full video remains available on YouTube, as well as other places. Thanks for joining. Maybe share with a friend.

Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst. 

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