Why Echo Frames Could Be a Privacy Nightmare

These frames keep Alexa close (All the time!)

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon’s Echo frames are camera-free, but offer an audio connection to Alexa.
  • Tiny speakers direct sound into your ears.
  • You can add prescription lenses, just like any frames.
A person carrying a bike and wearing Amazon Echo Frames.
Amazon 

Amazon’s new Echo Frames are now available to anyone who wants them. These smart spectacles manage to skirt many privacy problems by ditching the cameras, and instead focusing on audio.

The Echo Frames are pretty much just an Alexa speaker, embedded into a pair of glasses. But that’s enough for many people, with the bonus that the glasses don’t end up bulky and dorky. Also, smart audio assistants can be a huge boon to people with limited vision. 

"For blind or low-vision people, audio AR can significantly extend their ability to interact with the world," sound artist and augmented reality writer Halsey Burgund told Lifewire via email.

Echo Frames

The Echo Frames look like regular spectacle frames, with slightly bulky arms. They contain microphones, and small speakers that direct sound into your ears, "while minimizing what others can hear," according to the product description. Compared to something like AirPods, the battery life is poor—just four hours of listening time. Then again, these aren’t really designed for extended music listening. 

The idea is that these frames are always connected to Amazon’s smart assistant, Alexa, via the Alexa phone app. Or you can also use them with Siri or Google Assistant. Given how much better Alexa is than Siri, though, if you’re an iPhone user, you might want to go with Amazon’s version. 

Three versions of Amazon Echo Frames on display with a white background.
Amazon 

The frames cost $249.99 a pair, and come supplied with non-prescription lenses. You can get your own lenses fitted in your usual optician. 

Audio AR?

The best feature of these glasses is that they’re invisible. Not literally, of course. With AirPods or other headphones, people immediately assume you are blocked off. But when we see glasses, we ignore them. That’s where the directed speakers win: you can still hear your assistant, but your ears are not blocked. One wonders if bone conduction might have been an even better choice, but this is good enough. 

The advantages of always-available audio, coupled with an always available voice assistant, are many. "Audio AR can be very useful in situations where it is crucial that your eyes aren’t distracted by visual augmentations," says Burgund.

"Whether it’s driving, operating heavy machinery, or simply being in a dynamic environment with physical dangers, being able to receive relevant information through your ears while keeping your eyes fully engaged with the environment can make certain experiences more accessible and safer."

Audio AR also wins out over visual AR—images and text projected into your glasses to give a "heads-up display," or HUD—because it is non-directional. Audio can offer discreet alerts without you having to focus on them. You just notice them. Visual messages have to be noticed, then looked at and read, or interpreted. For conveying dense information, text and images are best, but for ambient awareness, audio is way better. 

“Additionally, AAR [audio AR] can be much more immersive given the ability of humans to simultaneously listen to their entire surroundings,” says Burgund. 

Privacy

While Echo Frames don’t have the obvious creepiness of a camera on the front, which was what did it for Google Glass, they still pack an always-listening microphone. It’s one thing putting this in a speaker that is confined to your home, but when you take it out in public, you are potentially eavesdropping on any and all passersby. 

"For blind or low-vision people, audio AR can significantly extend their ability to interact with the world."

Added to this is Amazon’s privacy record. It already collaborates with police departments to make recordings available from its Ring doorbells. It also collects recordings from your Alexa history. Do you really want to be in the vicinity of somebody wearing an Amazon-connected microphone?

The Future

It seems inevitable that AR is going mainstream, with Amazon’s Echo Frames, and Apple’s AirPods Pro. And Apple’s work with LiDAR cameras in its iPhones and other AR experimentation hints heavily at some kind of Apple glasses in the future.

This is great for people who want it, but for anyone who cares about privacy, it’s a nightmare. And much like other people freely sharing their address books with Facebook, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll just have to cross your fingers for government legislation, or never leave your home.

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