Facebook plans an ‘artificial reality’ for wearers of its smart glasses


Facebook wants users to be absorbed in an “artificial reality” by wearing a pair of its high-tech new smart glasses, documents reveal.

The social network announced recently the glasses would overlay digital content on top of the physical world, saying users could navigate with virtual maps or be alerted to misplaced personal items.

But inspection of blueprints filed with the European Patent Office suggest the company is looking to “adjust” people’s perception of the real world, and is internally using the phrase “artificial reality” – referred to in public by founder Mark Zuckerberg as the more PR-friendly “augmented reality”.

Release of the web-connected glasses – which pack a high-res video camera, microphone, eye movement and location sensors into Ray-Bans – is planned for next year.

Screenshot from a promotional video shows how Facebook’s “artificial reality” could help wearers find their keys (Facebook)

About 100 US Facebook workers are now trialling the technology, codenamed Project Aria, to help examine “ethical and technical questions” surrounding collecting, analysing and storing vast amounts of data the glasses glean from public spaces, as seen by the wearer.

Patent documents detailing its smart glasses describe the devices generating “a form of reality that has been adjusted in some manner before presentation to a user”.

They state: “Artificial reality content may include completely generated content or generated content combined with captured (e.g. real-world) content.

“The artificial reality content may include video, audio (and) haptic feedback.”

Patent drawings show how the sensor-packed smart Ray-Bans might look (Facebook via European Patent Office)

The social network’s Reality Labs wing said the privacy of members of the public seen in the glasses’ field of view will be protected by blurring faces and licence plates.

However, it has not revealed its “scrubbing” method for this, saying only wearers currently trialling the tech could choose to “identify and delete recorded data”.

Facebook said testers were trained where it was “not appropriate [to] record”, such as lavatories, changing rooms and prayer rooms.

Recorded footage would be encrypted and “periodically uploaded to Facebook’s servers”, the company said, and “kept in quarantine for 72 hours” before being backed-up.

Facebook says members of the public will be blurred out for privacy in Project Aria trials – but not the coffee shop customer here on the right (Facebook)

The company said it would be “upfront” about any future plans to use such data for advertising.

Facebook’s London spokesman declined to give further details about the storage and processing of raw data seen by glasses wearers, or wider integration of the wearables with its 2.6 billion-user social network.

However, the patent suggests the glasses could be linked to a user’s smartphone.

Dami Hastrup, founder of London VR startup Moon Hub, said: “By putting on glasses you can literally step in out of cyberspace.

“I think it can really add another dimension to social interactions if people are not able to be in the same office at the same time.

“If you have two people wearing those glasses, they could in tandem see things around them and use those things as conversation points, essentially a new way to experience real-life scenarios.

“But if it was to swing the other way and everyone was just relying purely on these glasses for all kinds of interaction, then it could look a bit bleak.”

A high-res camera is visible on the top left of the frames being piloted in Project Aria (Facebook)

The Electronic Fronter Foundation has previously raised concerns about how Facebook-owned Oculus Rift mandates a social network login to access virtual reality services.

Commenting on Facebook’s statement about blurring faces to protect privacy, EFF spokesperson said: “Even without face recognition, people can be identified in other ways – tattoos, clothing, voices, and even how we walk.

“This sort of identifiable information about bystanders should only be collected or used with meaningful consent, where there is full transparency on exactly how data will be used.”

James Hairston, Reality Labs policy lead, said: “Project Aria is about figuring out the right privacy and safety and policy model, long before we bring AR glasses to the world.”

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