Facebook's AR Glasses Have Privacy Fight Ahead

Google Glass left a bad aftertaste

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook is experimenting with augmented reality glasses. 
  • The Project Aria smart glasses will have to address and overcome privacy concerns. 
  • The glasses have cameras and other sensors to build a map that includes the inside of buildings.
A render of Facebook's Project Aria AR glasses
Facebook

Facebook’s new augmented reality smart glasses must overcome privacy concerns if they ever get to market, experts say.

The sensor-filled Project Aria glasses are an experiment intended to gather data and judge public perception of the technology. The market for AR is expected to boom, but Google’s ‘Glass’ brand of smart glasses released in 2013 were withdrawn from the consumer market after a backlash.

"It’s going to change the social fabric and the very way we interact with each other."

"All this stuff is so new that the laws and people’s habits lag behind," Eric Nersesian, who studies augmented reality at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said in a phone interview. "Not even technology people have a full grasp of the field, let alone people who are a little bit older or outside the field. So questions remain about how they are going to figure out how to create effective laws that protect people's privacy, yet still make the technology usable for the industry."

Maps That Move

The Project Aria glasses have cameras, microphones and other sensors that project a constantly updating map. In its initial testing phase, around a hundred Facebook employees will use the glasses to record as much as they can of their surroundings. The data will be used to build software the company calls LiveMaps, which will include the insides of buildings.

"With these 3D maps, our future devices will be able to efficiently see, analyze, and understand the world around them and better serve those who use them," Facebook writes on its website. "These devices will keep track of changes, like new street names, and update them in real-time."

Facebook acknowledges that capturing all this information could raise privacy concerns. On its website, Nathan White, the Privacy Policy Manager of Facebook Reality Labs, writes, "In the future, people will wear AR glasses as they go about their day—at home with their families, at work with their colleagues, or at dinner with their friends."

Facebook AR researcher wearing Project Aria glasses
Facebook

Similar previous experiments were met with a frosty reception. Some restaurants and bars banned Google Glass when it was launched because of privacy concerns. Glass users were called "glassholes" for filming people without their permission

No Recording in Restrooms

Perhaps wary of Google Glass’s poor reception, Facebook says that all Project Aria participants "will undergo training around appropriate use." They will be told to record in Facebook offices, in their private homes (where all household members must first consent to the device being used), or in public spaces.

Before participants record in privately-owned venues that are open to the public, like stores or restaurants, "they must seek consent from the owners." Participants won't be allowed to record in sensitive areas "like restrooms, prayer rooms, locker rooms or during sensitive meetings and other private situations."

Despite the privacy concerns, augmented reality holds promise for holding people accountable, Neresian said. "People will be able to be their own journalist and catch abuses of power in the act," he added. 

An Augmented Future

The AR market is expected to grow from $10.7 billion last year to $72.7 billion by 2024. A range of other manufacturers offer AR gear primarily for industrial users. Microsoft’s AR headset called HoloLens is aimed at businesses; Apple is rumored to be working on its own AR headset that could be for consumers.

"So questions remain about how they are going to figure out how to create effective laws that protect people's privacy..."

For Facebook to succeed with Project Aria, the company will have to make sure the glasses are comfortable and stylish, Neresian said. Equally important will be not to overwhelm users with information. 

"There's a problematic vision of the future with AR where everything has advertisements plastered everywhere you look like it's Times Square, but times ten," Neresian added. "But Facebook is trying to be aware of these concerns so they're trying to do very lightweight software. It will only show very minimal graphics and notifications when it's very important and they are useful for the user."

Demo of Facebook's AR glasses, includuing head tracking view and third-person view

While the market for smart glasses develops, companies are using augmented reality apps for mobile phones. GE, for example, lets shoppers ‘see’ appliances in their kitchens using an AR app. 

Potential purchases can also be viewed under different lighting conditions, said Brandon Clements, Immersive Experience Lead at The 3, which helped produce the app, in a phone interview. "If you had a really bright, nice kitchen and you took a picture in the morning, you could show it to your spouse in the evening and see what it would look like at that time of day."

AR may draw few privacy concerns when used for kitchen gadgets, but the same can’t be said for when it goes outdoors.

"It’s going to change the social fabric and the very way we interact with each other," Nersesian said. "[Much like] cell phones impacted the way people interact with each other. Now, everyone has a camera and a microphone. In the same way with AR, people will be able to record everything."