Meta’s Ray-Ban Smart Glasses Use AI to See, Hear and Speak. What Are They Like?

In a sign that the tech industry keeps getting weirder, Meta soon plans to release a big update that transforms the Ray-Ban Meta, its camera glasses that shoot videos, into a gadget seen only in sci-fi movies.

Next month, the glasses will be able to use new artificial intelligence software to see the real world and describe what you’re looking at, similar to the A.I. assistant in the movie “Her.”

The glasses, which come in various frames starting at $300 and lenses starting at $17, have mostly been used for shooting photos and videos and listening to music. But with the new A.I. software, they can be used to scan famous landmarks, translate languages and identify animal breeds and exotic fruits, among other tasks.

To use the A.I. software, wearers just say, “Hey, Meta,” followed by a prompt, such as “Look and tell me what kind of dog this is.” The A.I. then responds in a computer-generated voice that plays through the glasses’ tiny speakers.

The concept of the A.I. software is so novel and quirky that when we — Brian X. Chen, a tech columnist who reviewed the Ray-Bans last year, and Mike Isaac, who covers Meta and wears the smart glasses to produce a cooking show — heard about it, we were dying to try it. Meta gave us early access to the update, and we took the technology for a spin over the last few weeks.

We wore the glasses to the zoo, grocery stores and a museum while grilling the A.I. with questions and requests.

The upshot: We were simultaneously entertained by the virtual assistant’s goof-ups — for example, mistaking a monkey for a giraffe — and impressed when it carried out useful tasks like determining that a pack of cookies was gluten-free.

A Meta spokesman said that because the technology was still new, the artificial intelligence wouldn’t always get things right, and that feedback would improve the glasses over time.

Meta’s software also created transcripts of our questions and the A.I.’s responses, which we captured in screenshots. Here are the highlights from our month of coexisting with Meta’s assistant.

BRIAN: Naturally, the very first thing I had to try Meta’s A.I. on was my corgi, Max. I looked at the plump pooch and asked, “Hey, Meta, what am I looking at?”

“A cute Corgi dog sitting on the ground with its tongue out,” the assistant said. Correct, especially the part about being cute.

MIKE: Meta’s A.I. correctly recognized my dog, Bruna, as a “black and brown Bernese Mountain dog.” I half expected the A.I. software to think she was a bear, the animal that she is most consistently mistaken for by neighbors.

BRIAN: After the A.I. correctly identified my dog, the logical next step was to try it on zoo animals. So I recently paid a visit to the Oakland Zoo in Oakland, Calif., where, for two hours, I gazed at about a dozen animals, including parrots, tortoises, monkeys and zebras. I said: “Hey, Meta, look and tell me what kind of animal that is.”

The A.I. was wrong the vast majority of the time, in part because many animals were caged off and farther away. It mistook a primate for a giraffe, a duck for a turtle and a meerkat for a giant panda, among other mix-ups. On the other hand, I was impressed when the A.I. correctly identified a specific breed of parrot known as the blue-and-gold macaw, as well as zebras.

The strangest part of this experiment was speaking to an A.I. assistant around children and their parents. They pretended not to listen to the only solo adult at the park as I seemingly muttered to myself.

MIKE: I also had a peculiar time grocery shopping. Being inside a Safeway and talking to myself was a bit embarrassing, so I tried to keep my voice low. I still got a few sideways looks.

When Meta’s A.I. worked, it was charming. I picked up a pack of strange-looking Oreos and asked it to look at the packaging and tell me if they were gluten-free. (They were not.) It answered questions like these correctly about half the time, though I can’t say it saved time compared with reading the label.

But the entire reason I got into these glasses in the first place was to start my own Instagram cooking show — a flattering way of saying I record myself making food for the week while talking to myself. These glasses made doing so much easier than using a phone and one hand.

The A.I. assistant can also offer some kitchen help. If I need to know how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon and my hands are covered in olive oil, for example, I can ask it to tell me. (There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon, just FYI.)

But when I asked the A.I. to look at a handful of ingredients I had and come up with a recipe, it spat out rapid-fire instructions for an egg custard — not exactly helpful for following directions at my own pace.

A handful of examples to choose from could have been more useful, but that might require tweaks to the user interface and maybe even a screen inside my lenses.

A Meta spokesman said users could ask follow-up questions to get tighter, more useful responses from its assistant.

BRIAN: I went to the grocery store and bought the most exotic fruit I could find — a cherimoya, a scaly green fruit that looks like a dinosaur egg. When I gave Meta’s A.I. multiple chances to identify it, it made a different guess each time: a chocolate-covered pecan, a stone fruit, an apple and, finally, a durian, which was close, but no banana.

MIKE: The new software’s ability to recognize landmarks and monuments seemed to be clicking. Looking down a block in downtown San Francisco at a towering dome, Meta’s A.I. correctly responded, “City Hall.” That’s a neat trick and perhaps helpful if you’re a tourist.

Other times were hit or miss. As I drove home from the city to my house in Oakland, I asked Meta what bridge I was on while looking out the window in front of me (both hands on the wheel, of course). The first response was the Golden Gate Bridge, which was wrong. On the second try, it figured out I was on the Bay Bridge, which made me wonder if it just needed a clearer shot of the newer portion’s tall, white suspension poles to be right.

BRIAN: I visited San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art to check if Meta’s A.I. could do the job of a tour guide. After snapping photos of about two dozen paintings and asking the assistant to tell me about the piece of art I was looking at, the A.I. could describe the imagery and what media was used to compose the art — which would be nice for an art history student — but it couldn’t identify the artist or title. (A Meta spokesman said another software update it released after my museum visit improved this ability.)

After the update, I tried looking at images on my computer screen of more famous works of art, including the Mona Lisa, and the A.I. correctly identified those.

BRIAN: At a Chinese restaurant, I pointed at a menu item written in Chinese and asked Meta to translate it into English, but the A.I. said it currently only supported English, Spanish, Italian, French and German. (I was surprised, because Mark Zuckerberg learned Mandarin.)

MIKE: It did a pretty good job translating a book title into German from English.

Meta’s A.I.-powered glasses offer an intriguing glimpse into a future that feels distant. The flaws underscore the limitations and challenges in designing this type of product. The glasses could probably do better at identifying zoo animals and fruit, for instance, if the camera had a higher resolution — but a nicer lens would add bulk. And no matter where we were, it was awkward to speak to a virtual assistant in public. It’s unclear if that ever will feel normal.

But when it worked, it worked well and we had fun — and the fact that Meta’s A.I. can do things like translate languages and identify landmarks through a pair of hip-looking glasses shows how far the tech has come.

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