Ian wearing multiple pairs of smart glasses at once.

Gear

5 essential features the perfect smart glasses should have

After using smart glasses from Ray-Ban, Amazon, Soundcore, and Razer, I’ve narrowed down what works and what doesn’t.

Ian Carlos Campbell / Inverse

After indulging in a veritable charcuterie board of smart glasses released in the last few years, I can confidently say: we’re not there yet.

As I suggested at the start of Smart Glasses Week, our augmented reality future has not arrived yet. Current smart glasses aren't capable enough to replace our smartphones or function as centerpieces for ambient computing experiences such as Amazon's Alexa. Glimpses of an AR world come in fits and starts: a Google Lens search here, an Alexa smart home routine there, or a contextual reminder that you do in fact have an iCal event at this time in Messages. But so far, that future is still being built at a snail's pace and it's very much a Wild West of experimentation for both hardware and software.

And maybe that’s good. We’ve yet to meaningfully address the privacy issues inherent to augmented reality devices or whether philosophically it's a can of worms we even want to open. If people are already rightfully skeptical of “the metaverse,” can we really expect them to eagerly adopt headsets or smart glasses that will help them connect to it?

I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean the smart glasses I reviewed this week haven’t highlighted a potential other way. There are enough good, common ideas shared by all of these devices to craft a sort of recipe for a better pair of smart glasses. A device that’s a companion, and maybe even a temporary replacement for your smartphone or laptop, but unlikely to be the sole window through which you view the world.

Here’s what I think the ideal smart glasses should include.

5. Open-ear listening

With the right speaker set up, smart glasses can assume the role of your wireless earbuds.Amazon

The common feature between all the smart glasses I tried was the ability to (for the most part) privately listen to audio without having wireless earbuds in. Each pair of smart glasses does this slightly differently, but the basic idea involves speakers on the temples angled toward your ears so that the audio isn’t audible to the people around you, and your awareness of your surroundings isn’t interrupted.

This makes walking, biking, and doing basically anything outside where you might have to be aware of cars that much safer. You might lose the noise-canceling benefits of wireless earbuds like the AirPods Pro, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss the more premium audio features either. The Soundcore Frames make a pretty compelling case that even a Spatial Audio-esque surround sound experience in a pair of smart glasses can sound great. The best pair of smart glasses would likely offer something similar.

4. A smart assistant

All of the smart glasses I tried had access to some kind of smart assistant, whether it was remotely activating Siri on my phone with the Razer Anzu, or directly calling up Alexa through the Echo Frames. The ideal pair of smart glasses should be able to offer some hands-free help, whether it’s queuing up your next song, making a call, or interacting with your other devices nearby. This doesn’t need to go above and beyond what’s already possible on your phone, and ideally, all of it should happen on device for obvious privacy reasons.

On-device voice processing, like what exists on current Amazon Echo speakers, seems like a low bar to clear. Consumers are more likely to welcome smart assistants into their lives if their voice requests aren't stored in the cloud, and vulnerable to hacking. That said, maybe the assistant experience should be even more stripped down, like the Facebook Assistant in the Ray-Ban Stories. In that scenario, maybe this assistant is only used to control the functionality of the smart glasses and send inputs to your phone. Wearing smart glasses without having to use your hands should come with some kind of benefit, but it shouldn’t have all of the security risks of an always-on array of microphones.

3. Usable without a phone

The ideal pair of smart glasses should be able to work without your phone. It’s a big ask, with implications for the storage and battery life on the device, but it seems necessary for smart glasses to be truly useful. If a cellular Apple Watch can be enough of an independent device, then I don't see why smart glasses with a built-in cellular modem couldn't, too.

Streaming music from, say, Spotify or Apple Music directly to your smart glasses would eliminate the need for both a phone and a pair of wireless earbuds/headphones. I realize not everyone will want to pay extra for a data plan for their smart glasses, but if we model smart glasses off an Apple Watch — sold in a Bluetooth/Wi-Fi and a cellular version — you’d get to choose. That might just work.

2. Optional cameras

The Ray-Ban Stories have two cameras, but I’d be just as willing to buy a pair without them.Meta

I was impressed by the Ray-Ban Stories, but I can’t say they made me feel any more comfortable about cameras on my smart glasses, speaking purely as someone who has to wear glasses to see. That doesn’t mean a feature like that isn’t useful, but it should be optional; the audio experience and general smarts should still make up the core functionality of smart glasses.

A useful model to consider is Sonos, which has great smart speakers like the Sonos One, but also sells a Sonos One SL without any microphones (read: no voice controls) for a lower price. The best pair of smart glasses should come in configurations with and without cameras, not force them onto everyone.

Of course, the biggest roadblock to an Apple Watch (especially a cellular model) replacing a phone is that it lacks a camera, so maybe camera-equipped smart glasses aren’t as big of a turn-off as you might think. You have to realize that today, documenting everything with a phone camera is considered normal, and it's almost a given that you could be recorded by anyone, at any time, anywhere you go. But in 2013, shoving a camera in somebody's face made you a "Glasshole" to be mocked. If the dream is for smart glasses to work without phones, then a camera could make them more appealing than a smartwatch.

1. Personalization

Smart glasses should aspire to the level of customization the Apple Watch has, if not more so.Apple

Other than clothes and jewelry, eyeglasses are probably one of the most intimate accessories you can wear. People use their glasses to express their unique sense of style, and just because smart eyewear have speakers and a charging port doesn’t mean that’s going to change. The best version of smart glasses should have as many styles as possible, from material finishes to frame shapes; the seemingly infinite band and case options for Apple Watch prove it's doable.

I'm not saying it would be easy — it's already hard enough to design fashionable glasses without electronic components inside — but a modular mechanism similar to the Soundcore Frames could be a solution. On Soundcore’s smart glasses, all of the technology is contained in the temples and the front frames are interchangeable. This design allows the housing for the microphones, speakers, and other internal components to stay consistent, but the silhouette can look dramatically different just by snapping on a new front frame.

The other path is to embrace pre-existing brands. A logo on the side of a pair of smart glasses isn’t as embarrassing when it’s from a notable fashion brand like Ray-Ban. Not everyone’s going to be as willing to collaborate as EssilorLuxottica and Meta are doing, but if smart glasses can look like something you already wear? Well, you’ve already won half the battle.

There might not be just one solution

I’ve tried just a small sliver of the glasses-shaped devices out there, and I mainly chose these because they made an effort to look like normal glasses and focused most of their functionality on audio. Smart glasses are not at all set in stone; some do things entirely differently than the Razer, Meta, Amazon, and Soundcore options I tried. The Nreal Air is a wearable display for your phone that also offers its own rudimentary AR operating system. In China, the Oppo Air Glass is trying to do right by some of the ideas of Google Glass, with some of the same design quirks in tow.

The reality is smart glasses might come in as many varieties as laptops do, with room for both fully AR-equipped models and more stripped-down smart glasses like the ones I reviewed. What’s clear is that the tech industry at large is committed to smart glasses with AR overlays for work and play, and if Meta is any indication, willing to keep losing billions to realize it.

Maybe things will change and cement around a core feature or design if a company like Apple comes in with a refined take of its own, but for now the path forward seems uncertain. But if you ask me, the safest bet — the bet that is useful right now — looks more like the smart glasses I tried over the last week, and less like Google Glass.

Inverse may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Read our Ray-Ban Stories review here.

Read our Amazon Echo Frames review here.

Read out Soundcore Frames here.

Read our Razer Anzu review here.

Nearly a decade after Google Glass flopped, Inverse takes a deep dive into the augmented reality we have right now. Check out our Smart Glasses Week hub page for more stories about the state of smart glasses as they exist in 2022.

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