As smart glasses come back into focus, privacy risks fog the lens

9k=Facebook and Apple are reportedly working on their own smart specs, but analysts say privacy risks could hinder their efforts. Source: Yuichiro Chino/Moment via Getty Images

After years of stops and starts, smart glasses are making a comeback.

Alphabet Inc.-owned Google LLC first defined the connected eyewear segment in 2013 with its debut of Google Glass, which created an augmented reality experience for its users. But analysts said the product line suffered from a limited public understanding of its use cases as well as privacy concerns. Snap Inc. followed with its Spectacles, which sync to a smartphone and allow users to take photos and record short videos. Now, companies including Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. are reportedly developing their own iterations of smart glasses technology.

Analysts say a new push by big tech in the smart glasses market could help revive device sales, but they also noted some privacy risks associated with the technology that could prove difficult to overcome.

Global smart glasses shipments reached an estimated 713,000 in 2019, an increase of 15% compared to 2018, and are expected to go higher as new vendors enter the market, according to the most recent data from Kagan, a media market research group within S&P Global Market gadgets Intelligence.

In a September 2020 report titled “Wearable Tech: Smart glasses a niche market, but future holds promise” by analyst Mike Paxton, Kagan projects global shipments of smart glasses will top 1.6 million in 2021 and exceed 5.2 million by 2024.

Smart glasses typically connect to the internet through a smartphone or tablet and provide users with a hands-free alternative to texting and calling while pulling up information from the internet. The devices are also used in sports and recreational settings for tasks such as GPS navigation or accessing information on temperature and terrain.

Up to now, the bulk of demand for smart glasses has come from businesses rather than consumers due to the devices’ high costs and limited understanding about consumer use cases, said Kagan’s Paxton. A device from Facebook or Apple could be a game changer for the smart glasses market, Paxton said, noting the attention given to occasional comments from either company about the potential for a smart glasses release.

Facebook is partnering with Luxottica Group SpA, the parent of luxury sunglasses and eyeglasses company Ray-Ban, to offer AR-capable smart glasses sometime this year that will allow users to receive phone calls and live-stream their field of vision to friends and followers on the Facebook platform.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on an October 2020 earnings call called AR glasses the “Holy Grail” of “delivering a sense of presence while not taking you away from the physical world.”

“One day, you’re going to be able to sit down for dinner with your parents, even if they’re on the other side of the country, or look up directions without having to take out your phone and take yourself out of the moment,” Zuckerberg said.

Facebook is already a leader in the virtual world. The company in 2014 bought virtual reality company Oculus VR LLC for $2 billion and has since remained a top contender in the market for virtual-reality headsets.

Apple, meanwhile, has kept silent on its plans, but reports have swirled in recent months that the tech company could debut its own smart specs as soon as this year.

Many analysts expect Apple to unveil smart glasses at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference this June. But Loup Ventures managing partner Gene Munster expects that Apple’s foray into the market will be high-end mixed-reality goggles, possibly in 2022, followed by a more mainstream augmented-reality smart glasses product in 2025.

Mixed-reality goggles blend elements of augmented reality and virtual reality to produce digital images and information that augment users’ view of the outside world.

“Given Apple’s commitment to the AR opportunity and sufficient resources to see the development through, we believe it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ AR becomes transformational and mainstream,” Munster wrote in a recent report.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about its smart glasses plans.

Perhaps more difficult for companies than explaining the potential uses of smart glasses, however, is addressing public wariness about the devices’ impact on privacy.

A chief concern among many consumers about Google Glass, for instance, was its always-on cameras and microphones that allowed users to record their surroundings without the consent of those around them.

“People didn’t like seeing somebody who they knew [was] wearing a pair of smart glasses and they knew had a camera in it; they didn’t like that privacy invasion or that perception of privacy invasion that somebody could be recording them,” said Kagan’s Paxton.

Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group that promotes civil liberties online, said the rise in popularity of smart glasses could further erode any sense of privacy in public settings. That concern would only be compounded by product launches from big tech companies already facing heightened scrutiny for data-handling practices following privacy breaches in recent years, Opsahl added.

“For millennia, if you’re in a crowd, you have relative privacy because people wouldn’t be able to recognize you [and] might forget that you were there,” Opsahl said. “With always-on cameras, that difficulty sort of disappears.”