Ray-Ban Stories Smart Sunglasses Review: All-Seeing Eyes
Ray-Ban style, Facebook tech
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If you’ve ever wondered whether you really care about digital privacy, try wearing a Facebook camera on your face. Ray-Ban Stories, a design collaboration between Facebook and Ray-Ban parent company EssilorLuxottica, are smart sunglasses with speakers and cameras, which can serve as a casual substitute for your headphones or a phone camera. They take fun, casual first-person photos and 30 second video clips with quick tap of a button or vocal command. Aside from some battery life issues, they’re a fun, casual gadget: It can’t replace your phone’s camera or a great pair of Bluetooth headphones, but if your expectations for sound and visual quality are in check, it’s a neat little toy.
But Facebook’s presence looms large over the Stories and how you use them. The social media giant doesn’t use the glasses to funnel you onto its platform, but you do need a Facebook account to use them, and Facebook collects data from the glasses. Depending on your point of view, you can interpret this as a reluctant acceptance that photographers don’t take photos exclusively for Facebook or Instagram… Or an insidious attempt to get more data from its users by giving them ways to interact with Facebook outside the app.
That dynamic will almost certainly color (or shade) the experience, making an item that’s supposed to be effortless and care-free into a philosophical puzzle box. Once you get past that, if you get past it, Stories do start to feel like what they’re intended to be–a well-made tech trifle.
What are smart glasses?
The phrase “smart glasses” means a lot of different things right now. To many people it seems like the phrase still evokes AR-enabled glasses that allow you to access the internet without looking at a screen a la Google Glass. In practice, I’ve seen the phrase attached to devices like Razer’s Anzu glasses and Bose Frames, which are basically just sunglasses with speakers in them. Ray-Ban Stories falls somewhere in the middle, most closely aligned with the once-viral Snapchat Spectacles.
In this case, the word “smart” translates to a convenient quick shot camera and personal audio. The Stories have two 5-megapixel cameras, one on each side of the frame, which allow you to take photos and short video clips, up to 30 seconds. Like the Razer and Bose glasses, they also have “micro” speakers in the temples, which line up right in front of your ears, through which you can listen to music and take phone calls. There’s more to it, which we’ll get into, but the Stories have a fairly narrow, convenience-first mandate. Effectively, they exist to offload some key features from your phone into a less distracting form factor.
Do they look like normal sunglasses?
Ray-Ban Stories look and feel almost identical to a normal pair of sunglasses. For the sake of style, my smartened pair of black Wayfarers look just like my classic pair of black Wayfarers. The only differences people may notice are the circular camera lenses in the corners of the frames, which replace the Wayfarers’ distinctive studs.
It’s worth pointing out that, while we were sent this one style, Ray-Bans makes Stories versions of three of its frames, Wayfarer, Round, and Meteor, each of which costs $299, and comes in multiple colors. Ray-Ban also offers more expensive versions with specialty lenses, including polarized, transitions, and prescription options.
How do Ray-Ban Stories work?
On closer inspection, there are a few other differences, which primarily affect the wearer. Like other smart glasses, the temples – the sides of the glasses that rest on your ears – are larger and thicker than a normal pair of glasses. (For people with big heads, like me, they can feel tight the first few times you put them on, but that subsides over time). They’re bigger to accommodate all the tech inside, like the speakers, which you can see if you look closely at the back of the stems, where they curve to fit your ears.
The temples are also thicker because they house gesture-based touch controls. You can play or pause music by tapping the side of the frame, raise/lower volume by sliding your finger along them, or answer your phone by double-tapping the side of the frame when you have someone calling. The touch controls aren’t perfect–you need to hit a fairly specific spot on your temple to activate them–but they’re far less finicky than similar controls on other glasses.
You have two choices for operating the camera. First, there’s a button on top of the right temple, which you can tap to start a video or hold to take a photo. The button is both perfectly and problematically placed, because it’s exactly where I put my finger when I go to adjust or remove my glasses. When I go to record, it feels very natural to raise my hand and press the button. When I go to put the glasses on or take them off, though, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll accidentally start recording a video. (Pro tip: If you’re listening to a podcast, and it stops playing, you may be recording a video!)
What is the “Facebook Assistant”?
You can also take photos and record video clips using vocal commands through Facebook Assistant by saying “Hey Facebook,” then a command. The “Facebook Assistant” feels somewhat forced here: It is only used to record photos and videos and feels like an attempt to prevent people from completely forgetting that this is, in part, a Facebook device.
Walking around in my suburban home town, New York City, and an apple orchard in upstate New York, the only time anyone noticed or cared that I was recording photos was when I said, “hey Facebook.” I’d say it was because I drew their attention to the fact that I was taking a photo, but in a couple of cases I said, “I’m going to take a photo” out loud before using the wake word. Something about the word “Facebook” makes people prick up and pay attention.
Their concern isn’t entirely unwarranted, either. Facebook records and collects audio recordings every time you use Facebook Assistant. You can, however, tell Facebook View not to send the recordings and delete the local files, though. Other people have less to worry about from this particular aspect of Stories: The three microphone array focuses primarily on the user’s voice. Some ambient noise comes through, but it isn’t exactly enough to turn you into an inadvertent spy. The fact that it gives people pause, though, is reason enough to be mindful of where and how you use it.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about privacy
Though Facebook Assistant listening in isn’t something to worry about, Ray-Ban Stories has a lot of people concerned about privacy. Once the purview of spy stories like James Bond and Mission Impossible, glasses with cameras on them are inherently discrete. That makes them look stylish, but it also means that the people around you when you take photos and video may not be aware that they’re being recorded.
Ray-Ban Stories have some measures to ensure that you cannot record people secretly. When you take a photo or record footage, a bright white LED light turns on next to the camera lens on the subject’s left. As many people (and multiple European privacy watchdogs) have pointed out, you can theoretically cover that light, making it possible to record in relative secrecy. More importantly, in my own testing, I found that you can very easily take photos without people noticing. People rarely noticed the light that I was taking a picture with them in, unless I was staring directly at them or getting close to line up a shot.
Facebook and EssilorLuxottica have released privacy guidelines for how to use Ray-Ban Stories, making it clear that they should not be used to infringe on privacy or otherwise offend, though it is ultimately left up to the user to be a responsible photographer. As the MIT Technology Review points out, that kind of trust is naive at best, and insidious at worst.
In my mind, the issues around ethics and public photography are, frankly, not any different here than they are with any personal camera. There is a larger conversation to be had about smart cameras and privacy, but Ray-Ban Stories are a minor point in that debate until they achieve wide adoption compared to smart doorbell cameras, drones, and surveillance equipment that is more popular, more invasive, and more consequential. That said, people don’t like to “discover” they’re being recorded, so you need to be more careful about who and where and what you shoot when using Ray-Ban Stories. As such, I wouldn’t recommend buying them for kids, especially teens.
What’s it like taking photos?
Shooting photos and videos with Facebook Stories feels very different from taking photos with your phone or a DSLR camera. The glasses are meant for taking quick snapshots of what you’re looking at. There’s no viewfinder or way to preview your shots, so you need to “frame” your shots with your head and keep in mind that the camera’s field of view is different from yours. What the camera sees and what you see aren’t identical, though, so it does take a little practice to take good photos.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the 5MP cameras on Stories are far less precise than the camera in your pocket, especially if you have an iPhone, Google Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy phone. The photos look sharp, but don’t have the same incredible detail of modern phone cameras, and are very susceptible to color balance issues from indoor lighting.It is not a tool for artistic or technical photography, it’s a means of catching something when you want a photo, but don’t want to spend time “taking a photo.”
With time and effort, you can get better at taking photos with the Stories, of course. In general, I found that I had to get much closer than I usually would, even with a standard camera, and keep in mind that the camera will not include anything in my peripheral vision. After a week of fairly determined trial and error, I found that I could compose a solid photo without thinking about it too much. Again, though, expectations are a big factor here. Stories can absolutely handle taking commemorative photos of a person next to a sign or in front of a thing. They’re great if you just want a photo of a person in the moment. But if you care about anything more than getting your friends and family in the center of the photo, Stories (and, frankly, all smart glasses) will disappoint.
Tell me more about the Facebook View app
Facebook View is the simple dedicated app for downloading, storing, and editing photos and videos from Ray-Ban Stories. When you take photos and videos using the glasses, the image and video files are stored in its internal storage. To get them on your phone so you can see and share them, you have to use the transfer button in View, which creates a private network to send over the data. The drive isn’t huge, it can store up to 50 30-second video clips or upwards of 500 photos, but that’s more than enough room to handle a day’s worth of photos and videos without a transfer.
Technically, that’s all you have to do in View. You can set the app so it automatically copies all of your photos and videos to your phone’s photo library. That said, you can’t transfer the data without the app or avoid sending your photos there, so Facebook has access to everything you take with Ray-Ban Stories, whether you post it or not. However, the company says it will not access the actual photos and videos without your permission, or use the data obtained from Stories for personalized ads.
If you choose, you can use the app like a secondary camera roll. You can edit photos, create video “montages” by splicing together multiple clips, and add animated effects to static photos. Montages and “flashback photos,” as Facebook calls them, are interesting alternatives to the usual visual effects in photos and other apps, though they require a certain amount of effort that runs counter to the casual nature of the device. If I wanted to record video clips and make a montage, I’d rather use my phone.
Is there a way to cut Facebook out of the process? Can’t I just use my Photos app?
You have to be logged into Facebook View with a Facebook account to use Ray-Ban Stories’ cameras. When you take photos and videos using Ray-Ban Stories, the image and video files are stored in onboard storage in the glasses. Facebook View’s transfer button, which creates a private network, is the only way to transfer your photos. To use Facebook View, you must have a Facebook account.
Technically you can use the audio functionality of Ray-Ban Stories without Facebook View. The speakers and microphone connect to your phone via Bluetooth, not the app, so you can pair the glasses using your phone’s Bluetooth settings. Stories teaches you how to pair the glasses through the app, though, so you’d be hard-pressed to do it without connecting to Facebook at least once. (And, frankly, if you’re going to go to these lengths to avoid Facebook, you should just buy a different pair of smart glasses).
Ultimately, the best way to use Ray-Ban Stories without connecting to Facebook is to turn them off and wear them as simple sunglasses.
What’s it like listening to music?
Despite the fact that I can be a snob about audio quality, I genuinely love the experience of listening to music with smart glasses. The little speakers give you a decent personal listening experience without putting anything on or in your ears that generally doesn’t seem to bother strangers when you use them in public. There is something freeing about just walking around, listening to whatever you’re listening to, without isolating yourself from the world with headphones.
From a quality perspective, I would describe Ray-Ban Stories as “fine.” Listening to podcasts and on call, voices are clean and clear. With music, I found that music that was supposed to be playing softly or in the background was often inaudible, so you aren’t getting the full experience.
This is doubly true when you factor in that you should not be listening to Stories at full volume: Aside from the fact that they can disturb nearby people at full blast, I found the pounding of the speakers directly into your ears is more likely to give me a headache.
How do you pair Ray-Ban Stories?
If you look inside the glasses, behind the lenses, you will find a small power switch near the left hinge. You can pair the glasses via Bluetooth by holding the power switch in the on position until a small light on the inside of the right frame starts flashing, then releasing it. To fully pair the glasses, you will need to follow and complete the process in the app.
How do Ray-Ban Stories charge? How long does the battery last?
According to Ray-Ban, Facebook Stories lasts through up to six hours of “moderate” use. That bore out in my camera testing, but when I used them instead of headphones on a day-long work trip, they only managed about four hours of near-continuous audio use. It’s not a lot of time, especially if you use them in place of headphones, but I only found it to be a problem when I was out of the house all day.
There is a silver lining, though. You charge the glasses through a hard-shell sunglasses case, which also serves as a wireless charging dock and an extended battery. When fully charged, the case can store enough juice to recharge the glasses three times over. That doesn’t fully make up for the short battery life, as you’ll need to take them off to charge, but it gives you the option to stretch the glasses’ power out over the span of a day if you remember to keep the case handy.
Final thoughts on Ray-Ban Stories
A lot of times when i review “fun” tech, it can be difficult to account for the casual nature with which these devices are meant to be used. Ray-Ban Stories cannot compete with your camera or your headphones, so any technical breakdown of their capabilities has to come with a lot of caveats. At the same time, it is completely unreasonable to compare them to gear that’s made for a more specific purpose. Ray-Ban Stories are plain ol’ casual fun. They work well when that’s the purpose. That means they cannot replace other devices. They can only do their own thing. I think they handle the audio side of things as well as the other smart glasses that I’ve tried, though the battery life feels somewhat weak, even by smart glasses standards.
The cameras, and the privacy concerns that come with them, are another story. Let’s not sugarcoat it: Ray-Ban Stories would be a better product if they weren’t directly tied to Facebook, or any other content platform. Even indirectly, it raises privacy concerns about who can see what photos and videos you’ve taken. Then there are the privacy concerns of the people around you, and the troubled water around when it is and isn’t appropriate to a camera people may not be aware of.
Despite all that, I do think it is possible to enjoy Ray-Ban Stories easily and responsibly. Its limited use-case as a camera steers you toward content that you’d likely share: Photos of friends and family, and landscapes, and other quick, storable memories. If the erosion of digital privacy doesn’t already scare you, I find it hard to say that this should be the thing to make you change your mind.