Finally: Smart glasses that don't look dumb

When smart glasses look like regular glasses, they'll become just another option at the eye doctor

Radar Pace

Triathlete Craig Alexander wears Oakley's Radar Pace smart glasses during the Intel keynote at CES on Jan. 5, 2016.

Credit: James Niccolai

Smart glasses are coming to a face near you.

Negative Nancy naysayers in the tech press thoroughly stigmatized Google Glass during Google's experimental Explorer program. And when Google closed its R&D program and opened its product development effort, the tech press falsely claimed that Google killed glass -- and with it, the nascent smart glass industry.

In fact, smart glasses are already gaining traction in vertical enterprise, medical and military circles.

More importantly, the mainstream, everyday use of smart glasses is a near certainty. It's just a matter of time. And tech.

CES last week ushered in the most promising technology for the mainstreaming of smart glasses from the German lens company, Carl Zeiss.

Carl Zeiss's clear vision about consumer smart glasses

Carl Zeiss Smart Optics, a startup funded entirely by Carl Zeiss, showed elegant new smart glasses at CES. They aren't products, but proof-of-concept prototypes. (The company is working with companies to use their technology in actual products.)

The genius of Carl Zeiss's solution is that it delivers images and words to the eye not with big, bulky hardware that looks dorky and conspicuous -- the feature that made Google Glass's prototype socially unacceptable -- but with a system of clear lens technology that is housed in conventional-looking eyeglass lenses. Subtle lines are visible in the lenses, comparable to the lines you can see on bifocals.

Carl Zeiss's smart glass technology is covered by more than 250 patents. The lenses are usable with different frames, which could be designed by the same companies that design eyeglasses and sunglasses.

It's unlikely that Carl Zeiss's technology will show an image as high in quality as the one delivered by Google's prism technology.

The way Google Glass's prototype worked was that a dedicated physical hardware "boom" sat over the top of the right eye, in front of the prescription or sunglasses lens, if there was one (you could also use Glass without conventional glasses lenses). A tiny projector beamed the screen image through a highly specialized chunk of glass, through what was essentially a one-way mirror fixed at a diagonal to the direction of the beam. The screen image then hit the far end of the Glass prism, which was a concave mirror that reflected the screen image back toward the projector. The two-way diagonal mirror, however, re-directed it into the wearer's eye.

So if you follow the trail of light, Google Glass zapped it perpendicular to the line of sight from right to left, then it was reflected back from left to right before being turned with a diagonal mirror directly into the right eye.

The Carl Zeiss technology beams light perpendicular to the eye from right to left inside a special curved lens built directly into the glasses' lens, then immediately reflects it into the eye using something called a fresnel lens, which is a flat lens that's made up of concentric circles.

The fresnel lens concept was developed by the French nearly 200 years ago for use in lighthouses. You may have seen them in bookstores, which used to sell flat magnifying lenses using the fresnel concept.

While the Carl Zeiss technology probably won't offer the same brightness and clarity as Google Glass, it might be better overall. It's possible that the Carl Zeiss solution will be safer for heavy use and may prevent an affliction I call "Glass Eye," where your right eye becomes sore from such a bright light being beamed into it.

The technology involves injection-molded polycarbonate, which can be mass-produced and integrated into prescription glasses. Interestingly, the smart glass part of the Carl Zeiss lens must be customized for the wearer's prescription along with the convention lens part.

This is where I believe most consumers will get smart glasses. It will be an option at the optometrist's office or glasses retailer.

Choosing smart versions of your prescription glasses will probably cost a few hundred dollars extra, and medical insurance probably won't cover it. But by choosing that option, you'll get future Google Glass-like functionality without social awkwardness.

Why Google and Carl Zeiss should partner on glasses

Carl Zeiss is a lens maker, not a platform company. It doesn't care about the platform.

Google, on the other hand, is a smart-glasses platform company (among other things) and although it has patented technology for the Google Glass prism system, it doesn't really care about hardware.

While press accounts suggest that the Carl Zeiss technology is associated with some unknown competitor to Google Glass, there's absolutely no reason to leap to this conclusion.

Carl Zeiss says it is talking with other companies about using the smart glasses lens technology, and it's very likely that one of these companies is Italian eyeglass giant Luxottica, which is the behemoth behind popular brands like Lenscrafters, Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical, Ray-Ban, Persol, Oakley and glasses.com.

Meanwhile, Google is definitely working with Luxottica on Google Glass. In December, Google filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission for an enterprise version of Google Glass. (Note that the enterprise market for smart glasses is expected to grow sixfold this year, according to APX Labs.)

What Google Glass brings to Luxottica is an awesome platform in the form of the cloud-based infrastructure, the data and the operating system, as well as industry-leading artificial intelligence, voice-recognition and all the rest.

What Carl Zeiss enables for Luxottica is a design for smart glasses that is socially acceptable and compatible with fashion glasses.

By working together, Google, Luxottica and Carl Zeiss could mainstream smart glasses for consumers, and make them as common as bifocals or progressives. In fact, I think this is likely.

Why demand will grow for smart glasses

Literally dozens of smart glasses products are on the market or in development. Last week, several companies announced new products and technologies for smart glasses.

Luxottica's Oakley filed a patent published last week for an "e-paper" technology for smart glasses display. Oakley is also partnering with Intel on voice-command smart glasses for athletes called Radar Pace.

Kopin says it has developed the world’s smallest smart-glass display.

A company called Kopin announced last week what it claims is the world’s smallest smart-glass display. The "Pupil" display module is designed to hover in front of the lens of glasses and project an image into the wearer's eye like Google Glass does, but it's only 2mm high. Another line called the Pearl modules are larger and for enterprise users.

GPS giant Garmin last week showed off a new $399.99 smart glasses product for cyclists called Varia Vision. It works like Google Glass, but clips on to sunglasses. It's even got touch control on the side and a boom that sits in front of the glasses lens. Varia Vision ships in March.

Another company called Lumus showed off its DK 50 and DK 45 smart glasses, which are very bright, very wide field-of-view smart glasses. While these might be ideal for enterprise and other specialized applications, they'll never work as consumer devices because they look so obtrusive.

Oculus Rift Hayden Dingman

The Oculus Rift virtual reality headgear will sell for $600.

The gradual introduction of smart glass technology in the workplace and in sports will get people accustomed to the idea. The coming revolution in virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality in products ranging from Google Cardboard to Oculus Rift will also help drive demand for eyewear that delivers computer screens, but that can be worn all the time.

This rising demand, along with the unobtrusive technology to go with it, will take a few more years to develop. But I believe that the mainstream option for smart glasses for anyone buying prescription glasses is inevitable.

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