Tech

Why Facebook and Amazon have joined the race to bring computing to your face

Key Points
  • Facebook and Amazon each discussed computer glasses at launch events this week.
  • Amazon's approach is to get a lightweight product out now, while Facebook is promising advanced technology in a few years.
  • It's important for both companies because they don't have established operating systems.
Amazon hardware chief Dave Limp stands next to a photo of new hardware products the company unveiled in an event in Seattle on Sept. 25, 2019.
CNBC | Todd Haselton

Facebook and Amazon executives were 850 miles apart on Wednesday. But they were a lot closer when it came to unveiling their vision for the future of computing.

At an event in San Jose, California, Facebook introduced its plan for augmented reality glasses, where users will be able to pull up a visual display on top of what's actually in front of them. Up north in Seattle, Amazon announced Echo Frames, lightweight glasses with the Alexa voice assistant embedded in them.

The dueling events hosted by the two internet giants showcased how the face is becoming the next tech battleground after smartphones, tablets and connected devices like the watch. Microsoft, Google and Apple all have their own approaches to augmented reality and virtual reality, but the race for the face is particularly critical to Facebook and Amazon, because they have yet to establish computing gateways. Microsoft won the PC era and now has a tablet business, while Apple and Google have the dominant mobile operating systems.

"I've been saying for a while that augmented and virtual reality is going to be the next major computing platform," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on stage at the Oculus Connect 6 conference. "You know, there's only so much you can do with apps without also shaping and improving the underlying platform."

Real money is going into building the next platform: Earlier this week, Facebook announced the purchase of CTRL Labs, a gesture recognition start-up that claims to be able to read electrical signals from your spinal cord and translate them into signals that computers can understand. Facebook paid between $500 million and $1 billion for the early-stage company, CNBC reported, acquiring technology that could potentially control computer glasses without a touchscreen, keyboard, or mouse.

To date, the market for computing headsets has hit a number of snags, because of high price points, awkward form factors and, in some cases, the need to be tethered to a bulky computer. Google took an early stab at a product in 2013, with Google Glass, which failed to gain traction among consumers but later found a market on factory floors and assembly lines, where workers now have hands-free access to computers. Meanwhile, heftier VR products from Facebook's Oculus and Magic Leap have mostly been for gamers.

Momentum is picking up. For now, most AR apps use a phone's screen and camera, but the technology industry is pushing toward lightweight AR glasses. Fewer than 1 million pairs of AR glasses will be sold in 2019, a number that could rise to over 30 million by 2023, according to an estimate from market researcher IDC. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said AR is "profound" and his company has integrated AR tools into the iPhone's operating system. Microsoft's second AR headset, Hololens 2, is expected to be released this month.

"Suddenly, it went 0 to 60," said Mike Boland, an analyst focusing on the AR market at ARtillery. "There were no glasses, or the overall glasses space was in a rut, and now all of a sudden, there are all of these glasses to choose from."

In the words of Gene Munster from Loup Ventures, "There's now an arms race to capture the next computing platform."

A first step for Amazon

Amazon is testing a product called Echo Frames that integrates Alexa into a set of glasses. There is no display and no camera. the company unveiled the idea at an event in Seattle on Sept. 25, 2019.
CNBC | Todd Haselton

It's still extremely early, and Amazon and Facebook are just giving us a flavor of what we should expect.

Amazon's Echo Frames are invite-only at first. A product page shows a $179.99 "introductory" price tag. The lenses don't have a screen, but instead add Alexa to your face in a way that makes the glasses nearly indistinguishable from what you see every day so "you stay in the moment," the company says.

"They want to get Alexa in front of as many people as possible," Boland said. It's a "smart starting point," he said, and a way to ease people into a new market, rather than giving them "bulky glasses, geeky things nobody wants to put on their face, with privacy issues with cameras."

Aaron Rowley, the CEO and co-founder of smartglasses start-up Vue, agreed that voice is a "first step."

"What we see is many more sensors required to bring a full rich experience, bringing in sensors beyond voice and audio, because it's so limited," he said.

The fact that Echo Frames don't have a camera is a significant difference from smartglasses from companies like Google and Snap, which both prominently feature a camera.

"Google Glass saw a backlash from a real social power imbalance: some 'elite' Glass wearer could take your picture anywhere, but you can't say no. That's despite having security cameras almost everywhere in public life," said Avi Bar-Zeev, a consultant who previously helped start the original HoloLens project at Microsoft. "Snap Spectacles shows one way to make it really obvious when someone is recording, plus they try to keep everything ephemeral."

"The best answer may be to employ sensors that don't let people or companies extract private data at all," he said.

Facebook is going bigger, but it's going to take longer to get there.

Facebook has partnered with Ray-Ban parent and eyewear giant Luxottica to develop AR glasses, CNBC reported earlier this month, with an aim to get a product to consumers by 2023 or even later. The company acknowledged that its glasses are years away from launch.

When they're ready, Facebook's glasses will allow users to take calls, show information in a small display, and even live-stream the user's viewpoint to social media followers, according to CNBC.

Without a product to reveal at the Oculus event, Facebook spent a lot of time discussing the potential for AR and VR. The company views AR as an improvement to your current digital life.

"We're going to be able to live anywhere we want and feel like we're present with the people and the jobs and the opportunities that we want to have access to anywhere we want," Zuckerberg said. "That's why I'm so excited about this."

VIDEO10:2210:22
Oculus VR head Andrew Bosworth: Virtual reality the next major platform

Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's head of consumer devices, said that for now "we're focusing on the deep tech stack necessary to bring these to life."

Facebook also has to clear the privacy hurdle, a particular challenge considering the lack of trust consumers have in the company following the 2016 election debacle. Amazon says in its marketing copy that "Echo Frames are designed to protect your privacy."

That's a big issue for all of the top internet platforms as they deal with scrutiny from consumers and lawmakers concerning their use of data. But the biggest challenge may be getting people comfortable with a whole new way to view the digital world.

"Getting consumers used to having these types of devices in their lives and building some expectations around how to manage privacy and how to manage data use on these devices, that's all going to help the entire industry," Bosworth told CNBC.

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