Facebook is taking a new approach to its first smartwatch, which the company has not confirmed publicly, but is currently planning to debut next summer. The device will have a display with dual cameras that can be detached from the wrist to take photos and videos that can be shared across Facebook’s suite of apps, including Instagram, The roadside has learned.
A camera on the front of the watch screen exists mainly for video calls, while a 1080p autofocus camera on the back can be used for capturing images when detached from the stainless steel frame on the wrist. Facebook is tapping other companies to make accessories for attaching the camera hub to things like backpacks, according to two people familiar with the project, who have both asked for anonymity to speak without Facebook’s permission.
The idea is to encourage owners of the watch to use it in a way that smartphones are now used. It’s part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to build more consumer devices that bypass Apple and Google, the two dominant makers of cell phone platforms that largely determine Facebook’s ability to reach people.
The planned device is Facebook’s first attempt at releasing hardware specifically for the wrist, opening another area of competition with Apple at a time when the two tech giants are already at odds on other fronts. Apple has aggressively positioned itself as a protector of privacy by limiting the kind of data apps like Facebook can collect, while Facebook has been beset by scandals related to its handling of user data for years. Those dynamics could put Facebook in an uphill battle to convince people to buy its future Apple Watch competitor, especially since it plans to position the watch as a fitness device with a heart rate monitor as well.
Facebook has partnered with the top wireless carriers in the US to support LTE connectivity in the watch, meaning it doesn’t need to be paired with a phone to work and sell it in their stores, according to the folks in the know with the case. The watch comes in white, black and gold, and Facebook hopes to sell volume in the low six figures initially. That’s a tiny slice of the overall smartwatch market — Apple sold 34 million watches last year for comparison, according to Counterpoint Research.
In future versions of the watch, Facebook plans to have it serve as a major input device for its planned augmented reality glasses, which Zuckerberg believes will one day be as ubiquitous as cell phones. The company plans to use technology obtained from CTRL labs, a startup that has demonstrated bracelets capable of controlling a computer through wrist movements.
Facebook aims to release the first version of the watch in the summer of 2022 and is already working on the second and third generations for years to come. Employees recently talked about the price of the device at around $400, but the price is subject to change. While unlikely, Facebook could also scrap the watch altogether, as the device has yet to go into mass production or even get an official name.
Facebook’s track record for making hardware is spotty. The 2013 HTC phone was a spectacular flop, and it has yet to announce any sales for its Oculus VR headsets or Portal home video chat device. In recent interviews, executives have said that sales of the Oculus Quest 2 headset have surpassed all previous Oculus headsets combined.
Facebook’s interest in building a smartwatch dates back at least a few years. It looked at Fitbit’s 2019 acquisition before Google bought the wearable fitness maker. Since then, the social network has spent about $1 billion developing the first version of its watch and hundreds of people have worked on it, according to one of the people in the know.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on this story. The information previously reported that Facebook was building a smartwatch with health and messaging features, but details about the cameras and other details in this story are new.
Using a modified version of Google’s Android operating system, Facebook plans to draw on its suite of apps and third-party partnerships to create compelling experiences for the watch, including a companion app for phones. Even still, Facebook’s wearable wrist resonating with people is far from guaranteed. Smartwatches with cameras haven’t caught on so far, and Apple has already cornered the high-end of the market.