5 essential features the perfect smart glasses should have
After indulging in a real charcuterie board of connected glasses released in recent years, I can say with confidence: we are not there yet.
As I suggested at the beginning of Smart glasses week, our augmented reality future has yet to arrive. Current smart glasses aren’t capable enough of replacing our smartphones or functioning as centerpieces for ambient computing experiences like Amazon’s Alexa. Glimpses of an AR world arrive in spurts: a Google Lens search here, an Alexa smart home routine there, or a pop-up reminder that you actually have an iCal event right now in Messages. But so far that future is still building at a snail’s pace and it’s truly a Wild West of experimentation for both hardware and software.
And maybe that’s good. We have not yet meaningfully addressed the privacy issues inherent in augmented reality devices or whether philosophically it’s a Pandora’s box that we even want to open. If people are already rightly skeptical about “the metaverse” can we really expect them to eagerly adopt headsets or smart glasses that will help them connect to it?
I do not think so. But that doesn’t mean the smart glasses I reviewed this week didn’t point to another potential path. There are enough common good ideas shared by all these devices to come up with some sort of recipe for a better pair of smart glasses. A device that’s a companion to, and maybe even a temporary replacement for, your smartphone or laptop, but probably won’t be the only window through which you see the world.
Here’s what I think the ideal smart glasses should include.
5. Open-ear listening
The common feature between all the smart glasses i’ve tried was the ability (for the most part) to listen to audio privately without having wireless headphones. Each pair of smart glasses does this slightly differently, but the basic idea involves speakers on the temples that are angled towards your ears so the audio isn’t audible to people around you and your awareness of your surroundings. is not interrupted.
It makes walking, biking, and pretty much anything outdoors where you might need to be aware of cars that much safer. You might lose the noise-canceling benefits of wireless headphones like the AirPods Pro, but that doesn’t mean you should miss out on the more premium audio features either. The Sound frames making a pretty compelling case that even a Spatial Audio-esque surround sound experience in a pair of smart glasses can sound good. The best pair of smart glasses would probably offer something similar.
4. A smart assistant
All of the smart glasses I’ve tried had access to some sort of smart assistant, whether it’s remotely activating Siri on my phone with the Razer Anzuor by calling Alexa directly via the echo frames. The ideal pair of smart glasses should be able to offer hands-free assistance, whether it’s queuing up for your next song, making a call, or interacting with your other nearby devices. It doesn’t need to go beyond what’s already possible on your phone, and ideally it should all happen on-device for obvious privacy reasons.
On-device voice processing, like what’s on current Amazon Echo speakers, seems like a low bar to jump. Consumers are more likely to welcome smart assistants into their lives if their voice requests aren’t stored in the cloud and vulnerable to hacking. That said, maybe the Assistant experience should be even simpler, like the Facebook Assistant in the Ray-Ban Stories. In this scenario, this assistant may only be used to control the functionality of the smart glasses and send inputs to your phone. Wearing smart glasses without having to use your hands should have some benefits, but it shouldn’t have all the security risks of a set of always-on microphones.
3. Can be used without a phone
The ideal pair of smart glasses should be able to work without your phone. It’s a big ask, with implications for on-device storage and battery life, but it seems necessary for the smart glasses to be really useful. If a cellular Apple Watch can be a sufficient independent device, I don’t see why smart glasses with a built-in cellular modem couldn’t either.
Stream music from, say, Spotify or Apple Music directly to your smart glasses would eliminate the need for a phone and a pair of wireless earbuds/headsets. I realize not everyone is going to want to pay extra for a data plan for their smart glasses, but if we model smart glasses from an Apple Watch – sold in Bluetooth/Wi-Fi and cellular – the choice is yours. It could work well.
2. Optional cameras
I was impressed with the Ray-Ban Stories, but I can’t say they made me feel more comfortable with the cameras on my smart glasses, only speaking like someone who has to wear glasses glasses to see. That doesn’t mean such a feature isn’t useful, but it should be optional. audio experience and general intelligence should always be the core functionality of smart glasses.
A useful model to consider is Sonos, which has great smart speakers like the Sonos Onebut also sells a Sonos One SL without any microphones (read: no voice commands) for a lower price. The best pair of smart glasses should come in configurations with and without cameras, not impose them on everyone.
Of course, the biggest obstacle to an Apple Watch (especially a cellular model) replacing a phone is that it doesn’t have a camera, so maybe camera-equipped smart glasses aren’t not as important as you might think. You have to realize that nowadays documenting everything with a phone camera is taken for granted, and it’s almost a given that you could be recorded by anyone, anytime, anywhere you go. But in 2013, putting a camera in someone’s face made you a “hole in the glass” to be laughed at. If the dream is that smart glasses work without a phone, a camera could make them more appealing than a smart watch.
Besides clothes and jewelry, glasses are probably one of the most intimate accessories you can wear. People use their eyewear to express their unique sense of style, and just because clever the glasses have speakers and a charging port does not mean that will change. The best version of smart glasses should have as many styles as possible, from material finishes to frame shapes; the seemingly endless band and case options for Apple Watch prove it’s doable.
I’m not saying it would be easy – it’s hard enough to design fashionable glasses without electronics inside – but a modular mechanism similar to Soundcore Frames could be a solution. On Soundcore’s smart glasses, all the technology is contained in the temples and the front frames are interchangeable. This design allows the housing of microphones, speakers and other internal components to remain consistent, but the silhouette can be radically different simply by snapping in a new front bezel.
The other way is to adopt pre-existing brands. A logo on the side of a pair of smart glasses isn’t as awkward when it comes from a notable fashion brand like Ray-Ban. Not everyone will be as willing to collaborate as EssilorLuxottica and Meta, but what if smart glasses can look like something you’re already wearing? Well, you’ve already won half the battle.
There may not be just one solution
I’ve tried just a small portion of the glasses-shaped devices, and mostly picked them because they made an effort to look like normal glasses and focused most of their functionality on audio. Smart glasses aren’t set in stone at all; some do things completely differently from the Razer, Meta, Amazon, and Soundcore options I’ve tried. The Nreal Air is a wearable display for your phone that also offers its own rudimentary AR operating system. In China, the Oppo Air glass tries to do some of the ideas of Google Glass right, with some of the same design quirks.
The reality is that smart glasses can come in as many varieties as laptops, with room for fully AR-equipped models and more stripped-down smart glasses like the ones I reviewed. What’s clear is that the tech industry as a whole is committed to using smart glasses with AR overlays for work and play, and if Meta is any indication, willing keep losing billions to find out.
Maybe things will change and cement around a core feature or design if a company like Apple comes up with a refined version of its own, but for now the way forward seems uncertain. But if you ask me, the safest bet – the bet that’s useful right now – looks more like the smart glasses I tried last week, and less like Google Glass.
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Read our Ray-Ban Stories review here.
Read our Amazon Echo Frames Review Here.
Reading out loud Soundcore Frames here.
Read our Razer Anzu review here.
Almost a decade after the Google Glass flop, Reverse dive deep into the augmented reality we have right now. Discover our Smart Glasses Week hub page for more stories on the state of smart glasses as they exist in 2022.