Those glasses are coming, like it or not.
Facebook has been reflecting on 2020 — but not for long.
In a post entitled “No looking back”, the social network immediately reneged on the title’s promise by boasting about its 2020 successes.
Notably, people used Virtual Reality a lot more, and this has emboldened Facebook’s vision for its upcoming Horizon platform.
Next, they looked ahead to 2021. The headline item is a pair of “smart internet glasses” that Facebook is at pains to convey, do not offer Augmented Reality. As noted in hi, tech. last year, they will likely be made by Ray-Ban.
The glasses will launch “sooner rather than later” and it’s hard to know if literally anyone has asked for such a device from Facebook. Oh great, we can livestream our Facebook-driven insurrections without having to hold a phone. Frees up a hand for looting and fighting.
So, what do we know about the glasses?
Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s head of hardware, told Bloomberg:
“We’re being quite coy about which functionality precisely we are providing.
We’re excited about it but don’t want to over-hype it.
We’re not even calling it augmented reality, we’re just calling it ‘smart glasses’.”
Well, I’m enlightened.
Thing is, you and I know enough about these companies to know what’s at play here.
The big tech companies will keep releasing smart glasses until we all give in and wear them. Although they make you look like a nerd (or a “Glasshole”, the memorable moniker for Google Glass wearers), smart glasses offer a way to unite the physical and digital worlds.
As it stands, there are moments in the day when you and I look away from our screens (don’t do it now) and we are, however briefly, Not Online. Heck, I even stopped to look at a tree the other day.
The ROI on these moments is negligible from a big tech perspective. Such inefficiency is intolerable.
But what if Facebook (or Google, or Apple) could ‘see’ what you see?
What if they could tell you all about that tree, without you needing to ask?
What if they could apply a ‘cool’ filter and upload a picture of the tree for you, right from the glasses?
They would also know where you are, whether your friends have been there, and what’s going on in the local neighbourhood.
All of this data can be added to your social profile. People who look at trees like this also look at [insert broad generalisation here].
If you wanted to know all of this, you could reach for your phone. After all, you are still being tracked even in your supposedly Not Online moments. They know where you are, even if they can’t see what you see.
But what is the probability that you will reach for your phone, point it at a tree, read the results, and then click on other content? Not 100% — and that’s not good enough.
Though I exaggerate, I am following an existing logic to one potential, extreme conclusion.
We are moving away from cookie-based tracking and that removes a profitable avenue for deterministic matching. In place of cookies, we are told to expect more probabilistic matching.
Simply, with deterministic matching, 1 + 1 = 2.
You know who the person is because you are tracking them across sessions, devices, and platforms. So, if I am on Google Chrome on my laptop and then I use Google Maps on my phone, Google knows it is me across both sessions due to my user ID. Cookies are also used to track my browsing behaviours, which sites I visit, and so on.
Facebook has even patented technology that would lock people out of their account based on “unexpected behaviour”. So the person would have the account logins, but Facebook would detect that they are not acting in the same way as the ‘real’ account holder and lock them out.
With probabilistic matching, 1 + x = y.
Statistical modelling is used to group together devices and sessions into a loose user ‘ID’ based on the likelihood it is the same person. This can be useful for growing an audience, because the lower confidence interval means you tend to target a broader group to get the results you want. It also means using a behaviour-based strategy where you focus on ‘intent signals’ rather than just following the same people with the same aggressive ads.
Both have merits, but deterministic modelling is foundational for big tech companies. They really, really want to know who you are and what you’re up to. Anything under 100% means there is room for improvement.
It is easy to see why.
In web analytics, every additional click that stands between the customer and the sale decreases the ultimate conversion rate. Even the simplest detour on the path to purchase will see some people veer off path for good.
Facebook is painfully aware of this. In the olden days (2019), brands could advertise on Facebook but they’d have to send people to their website to close the sale. Every time that happens, a lot of people think the better of it and decide not to buy.
And lo, we now have stores with instant checkout on Facebook.
These are easy wins for big tech, but they are just steps towards the ultimate goal. These companies need to keep growing and they know they can make more money from ads if they get closer to the customer’s quotidian rhythms. See also: Smart home devices, fitness trackers, smart cities, and so on.
Back to the glasses, then. Tellingly, Facebook had this to say in the interview with Bloomberg:
“If you have the right technology, it can get out of the way.”
-Andrew Bosworth, Facebook
This is as true as it is concerning. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” comes to, well, mind. Ironically, by aligning directly with our field of vision, we will no longer be aware of big tech’s presence in our daily lives.
When you grab your phone or you type an address into a browser, you are conscious of the activity. You may even be aware of its hidden consequences, if you consider where the data will go.
Facebook’s partnership with Ray-Ban is revealing, too. People saw the Snap Spectacles as a gimmick, rather than a useful tool. Ray-Ban will design more appealing glasses, but their role will also disarm users.
Would you wear a pair of Facebook-branded glasses? Absolutely not.
Would you wear a pair of Ray-Ban glasses with built-in Facebook? See above.
But some people will give them a chance. And you can be sure that even if they don’t, Facebook will keep releasing these products until we relent.
Apple and Google are also set to release smart glasses soon. The prize is very firmly fixed in their sights.
There is a persistent myth that online advertising is hyper-targeted, accurate, and reliable. It appeals to executives that want to know what they invested and what they got in return. Google and Facebook are all to happy to make these calculations on behalf of the execs and show them what they want to see.
Google alone makes over $100 billion a year from selling ads online.
In reality, the self-titled world of “performance marketing” is not quite what it seems. Ad fraud is rampant, tracking is much less accurate than reported, and we know precious little about which ads really work. Sure, you can pay to get in front of people on Google, but are you paying for a sale that would have happened anyway? Google marks its own homework, so of course it says you got a huge return on your investment.
More and more people are realising this.
The big tech companies have been in on the grift for years. Recent leaks show that Facebook’s leadership teams have been talking about the flaws in their advertising tools since at least 2016.
“More than half the time we’re showing ads to someone other than the advertisers’ intended audience.” — Internal Facebook emails
They described the data used for interest targeting as “crap” and “abysmal”. In response, Facebook said these emails were taken “out of context”.
Ah yes, that context where “crap” means “good” and “abysmal” is a jovial term of affection.
In December 2020, Facebook’s ‘Head of Ad Integrity’ departed what was always a thankless task.
This problem is certainly not isolated to Facebook. We see the same frustrations on Google, as well as with display advertising companies like Criteo.
Uber decided to audit their ad spend in 2017 and found that $100 million out of their $150 million ad budget was wasted.
Another story popped up about a headphone retailer reducing their budget from $1200/day to $40/day, to no effect on their sales.
It is hard to avoid the sense that a reckoning is on the way for online advertising. A lot of people have lined their pockets by peddling the falsehood that brands need to keep spending more to compete. There is a good line of business in auditing these accounts to save brands money without decreasing their sales.
Facebook is very well aware that its data is “crap” (their word), but they must surely be thinking: If we can make this much dough with crap data, how much will we make when the data is good?
Those smart glasses would bring the smart data Facebook needs to make that leap.