During its Oculus Connect live stream event on Wednesday, Facebook announced Project Aria, a research project focused on building a wearable augmented reality device. But these smart glasses are more of a research platform than consumer-ready face gadget. In fact, the company explicitly states that Aria is not even considered a prototype. However, that fact has not deterred Facebook from imagining a future where AR glasses serve as a soft replacement for smartphones, much the same way the Apple Watch does for iPhones.
“We’re envisioning a time when we have all the benefits of connectivity (and more), without the need to keep our heads and our eyes down, looking at a device,” the company explained in a Wednesday press release. “Imagine calling a friend and chatting with their lifelike avatar across the table. Imagine a digital assistant smart enough to detect road hazards, offer up stats during a business meeting, or even help you hear better in a noisy environment.”
As a research platform, Aria will act as a testbed enabling Facebook engineers to further develop the AR ecosystem by capturing both POV photos and video as well as tracking the wearer’s head and eye movements as well as location data. if that sounds like a hornets nest of privacy and surveillance issues, you’re not alone.
As Facebook points out, “Project Aria was designed as a way to help us innovate safely and responsibly. To help us develop the safeguards, policies, and even social norms necessary to govern the use of AR glasses and future wearable devices, we’re gathering feedback both from people wearing the device and from people who encounter other people wearing the device in public.” Essentially, the company wants to see if people wearing Aria get punched in the face as often as the poor sods who thought Google Glass was a good idea. As such, Facebook has created a privacy FAQ regarding the project explaining what data it collects and how it is collected.
As Facebook notes, these glasses are actually more capable than what you’d find in your standard VR headset as they posses the same head and eye tracking capabilities but also marry in smartphone functions like a forward facing camera, multichannel audio inputs, and GPS tracking. A big part of the testing platform will revolve around power management. The goal is to be able to run all of these sensors in tandem but in a power-efficient manner, otherwise users will be saddled with smart glasses that need to be charged multiple times a day.
The company has already dreamed up a number of fantastical use case scenarios for Aria, including virtual televisions which would replace physical sets with AR feeds that remain anchored to the locations where they are placed, even if you get up walk into another room. More practically, Facebook is developing the Aria’s navigation capabilities to create a virtual map onto which users can set — and leave — digital objects and avatars for their own benefit and that of other Aria users. To do so, Facebook is leveraging its existing Livemaps system.
Facebook is also partnering with Carnegie Melon University to explore how these glasses might be used to map and record the interiors of museums and airports, then display that information to people with visual impairments. The first batch of Aria glasses will be released to select FB employees and contractors later this month.
Correction, 8:15PM ET: This story originally stated that Project Aria was a partnership with Ray-Ban. The Ray-Ban / Facebook collaboration is a separate project working to build more traditional smart glasses. We apologize for the error.