Smart glasses need to be stylish to really go mainstream

When I first saw the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses a few weeks ago, I noticed something. In the event space Meta had so carefully prepared, there was a wall showcasing the different frames, colors, and lenses. It was meant to visualize all the different style options — more than 150, in fact. But standing about 10 feet away, they all blended together.

For the most part, my hands-on with the Meta smart glasses went better than I’d expected. Photo and video quality was dramatically improved thanks to the new 12MP camera. Pain points like audio leakage seemed to be addressed because they now have five microphones instead of one. Sound quality was also better and supported spatial audio. You could livestream with them! After a few demos, this was a device I could imagine a content creator or home video aficionado buying.

I just didn’t like how I looked in the two pairs I tried. One was the Wayfarer, and the other was the new rounded Headliner. While Wayfarers are a popular, classic style, there are still plenty of folks who don’t like the way they look. On me, the bold black frames overpowered my face, and combined with clear lenses, my eyes seemed smaller — a thing I’m self-conscious about. Granted, it was a short demo, and I simply may not have been used to them. But if I didn’t end up liking either of the two available frames, would having 150 variations matter? This wouldn’t be an issue on Zenni Optical. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of frames to choose from, in different materials, colors, and lenses. It might take a while, but I know I’m going to find something that makes me feel good when I look at myself in the mirror.

You can see the differences up close, but if you move back a few feet, they all blend together.
Image: Meta

Limited style options were a problem I’ve had with every pair of smart glasses I’ve ever worn, from the defunct Focals by North to the Bose Frames and nearly every prototype of Google Glass. (I look like a total jabroni in the Bose Frames Tempo.) That’s because smart glasses, generally speaking, are tricky to do well. You have to provide a compelling use case, cram in enough tech to make sure they work well without being uncomfortable, and they have to look good. I have trouble naming a company that’s done all three.

The thing is, if you’re mass-producing a gadget, the human body is kind of your enemy. No two people’s faces or vision are the same. Low nose bridges, strong prescriptions, astigmatism, and face shapes are all things you have to accommodate. At the same time, it behooves wearable makers to pursue designs that work for “most people.” While that works with phones, tablets, and even smartwatches, it’s less effective for something you wear on your face. Again, just because most people look alright in Wayfarers doesn’t mean everyone wants to wear them.

They look better as sunglasses, but that makes them largely useless indoors.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

When I wore the Razer Anzu for testing, I thought they looked alright on me. My spouse hated how they made me look. The nicest thing my friends and colleagues said to me was, “I don’t hate them.” Vanity may be a sin of pride, but if eyes are windows to the soul, I want my glasses to be a fetching pair of curtains. The Razer Anzu would’ve needed to be as necessary to my life as a smartphone for me to go all in on function over form. They weren’t. Now I wear a pair both my spouse and I like, and the Anzu collect dust in a drawer.

That’s why it’s a problem that all smart glasses tend to look the same. Not everyone will like how a wide, boxy, thick frame will look on them. You could have the most powerful smart glasses ever, but it means jack if people don’t want to wear them.

I hate to say it, but if smart glasses are ever to become mainstream, looks matter. Companies need to give people as many options as they’d find online or at their local optician. The parable of Google Glass hammered home the lesson that outlandish design (and dubious privacy) evokes ridicule. You’ve likely never heard of Epson’s Moverio glasses because you’d never get a date wearing them. You probably forgot about the Echo Frames, not just because sticking Alexa in your glasses is unnecessary but also because the design is utterly forgettable.

The frames are on the thicker, bolder side. Some people look great with these kinds of frames, but they can be overpowering on other faces.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

That’s why, of all the smart glasses I’ve seen so far, the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses might actually have a shot. At $300, they’re pricey but on par with regular Ray-Bans. This time around, there’s a clear use case: hands-free video that you’d actually share to social platforms. Socially, privacy is still a concern, but the TikTok era has also turned everyone into a potential content creator. For better or worse, every time I go out, I assume I’ll be an extra in the reel of someone else’s life. And while 150 variations still aren’t enough to make everyone want a pair, there’s a better chance of finding a combination you like than if you only had two or three options total.

Style aside, at the end of the day, these glasses still need to work and work well. That’s why, despite my reservations about how I look in them, I’m cautiously optimistic that, unlike the Anzu, the upgrades might encourage me to stick around. I won’t know for sure until I get my review unit, but I’m eager to find out.

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