Why 'invisible smart glasses' are the perfect wearable

Dozens of companies promise conspicuous, bulky and expensive smart glasses. But the best idea is regular glasses that are smart.

vue smart glasses
Mike Elgan

What if smart glasses looked like regular, everyday glasses?

Google Glass was derided in the press as a dorky, clunky, privacy-invading error. (In truth, it was a bold experiment that launched the smart glasses revolution.)

Google Glass proved that conspicuous wearables don't belong on your face. The camera made people nervous. The screen caused a malady I called "Glass eye" (pain from having one eye exposed to bright light in a dark room). Looking at the Google Glass screen created awkward social situations when users looked up and to the right to see the screen. Battery life was terrible.

All these problems were caused by the visual elements of Google Glass -- the camera and screen prism. But what if someone came out with smart glasses without optics?

Good news: smart glasses with no camera or screen are coming on the market. The great thing about these glasses isn't the lack of cameras and screens. It's that they can pass as totally normal, everyday prescription glasses or sunglasses (or both).

I call this category "invisible smart glasses," because the wearable computing elements are invisible.

This ability to pass as normal glasses is, to me, the ultimate feature. Most people won't accept conspicuous electronics on their faces.

I believe that invisible smart glasses will soon surpass smart watches and all other wearables. Eventually, they'll surpass even dumb glasses.

Here's why all glasses should be invisible smart glasses.


The best "invisible smart glasses" I've seen so far are called Vue smart glasses. They're being crowdfunded on Kickstarter.

I sat down this week with two members of the four-person Vue team: co-founder Tiantian Zhang and product marketing manager, Aaron Rowley, at their incubator office in San Francisco. I also got to check out Vue prototypes.

Vue glasses look almost exactly like ordinary prescription glasses or sunglasses. No bulky electronics. No strange visible screens or lights. And at 28 grams (0.9 ounces), they're light.

Vue glasses will come in two styles ("Classic" and "Trendy"), three colors (black, white and brown) plus five options for the temples (black, "carbon fiber," "wood," brown and blue) and three lens types (prescription, sunglasses and "fashion" -- where you just wear glasses for the look).

All the "smart" interface elements are hidden. Sure, if you look carefully at the earpiece or curve of the temple (the part of the glasses that hook around your ears), they do look fat. Unlike Google Glass, which are fat on one side and basically wire thin on the other, both Vue temples are the same size, with the bulk of the electronics on one side and the battery on the other.

Vue smart glasses have bone-conduction pads on both sides (Google Glass needed optional earbuds because the design allowed bone conduction on one side only), a tiny LED light on the inside of the temple near the frame on the right side and a tiny microphone embedded in the right temple. A touch screen graces the outside of the temple on the right side -- but they don't look like they're touch controls.

The flashing light alerts you to incoming messages and emails, and you can choose what the blinking means in the settings section of the app. The LED light is positioned to get your attention, but to be invisible to others.

The bone conduction pads let you hear any sound you might normally hear through earbuds, including Siri or Google Assistant, phone calls, alerts, audio feedback, music, podcasts and so on. (Vue claims patent-pending technology that prevents others from hearing anything from the bone-conduction speakers.)

The best thing about bone conduction is that you get sound without anything entering or covering your ears. So you can have access to the audio cues all day without the discomfort of wearing earbuds. And if you do need to listen to music or take a longer call, your ears are free and you can do so without removing the glasses. (Note that bone conduction technology is not an acceptable replacement for earbuds when it comes to music. It's fine for notifications and even short phone calls. But the audio quality is nowhere near even cheap earbuds or headphones.)

The touch screen on the outside of the right temple offers four gestures, which users can customize: single tap, double tap, swipe and long press. For example, you could use the single tap gesture to answer a call and the swipe gesture to go to the next email.

Vue is building an online tool for choosing the right prescription lenses, and is working with an FDA-approved lens maker to handle prescription lenses, according to Rowley.

An accompanying app will run on iOS and Android, and will provide a range of features and options. For example, you can track your glasses if you lose them, monitor your steps, and get estimates of distance traveled and calories burned.

You can charge Vue glasses by inserting them into the included charger case. Like Apple's AirPods, the Vue glasses' case includes its own battery, so you can charge the glasses on the go without plugging into an outlet. Vue claims up to three days of standby time with the glasses themselves, and up to seven days of standby battery life when you combine the total charge of the glasses and case.

Crowdfunding is one way to gauge demand. Vue's Kickstarter campaign launched less than two weeks ago, and has raised more than $370,000.

Kickstarter backers can get Vue glasses for $179, and the company expects to ship in July. The full retail price is expected to be $269.99.

(You can hear my full, candid conversation with Zhang and Rowley by subscribing to my podcast, The FATcast.)

Why invisible smart glasses are the perfect wearable

Vue glasses represent an emerging category of invisible smart glasses that make the gadgetry invisible by abandoning optics -- no cameras, no screens. Other contenders in this space include Zungle Panther sunglasses and VSP Level glasses.

Eventually, we'll have the technology to make invisible smart glasses that do have optics. I wrote in January about Carl Zeiss's smart glass technology, which achieves invisibility using something called a fresnel lens.

Laforge Optical is already offering for pre-order a $590 pair of smart glasses called Shima glasses, which do offer a heads-up display but achieve near invisibility by reflecting a temple-embedded screen into the right eye via a "series of optical elements in the lens." (I wouldn't advise pre-ordering new technology like this without seeing and trying them first.)

Optics, not optics -- whatever. The crucial feature is "invisibility" of the electronics. The future of smart glasses will be dominated by wearables that pass as ordinary, everyday glasses.

I believe the so-called "killer app" for invisible smart glasses is artificially intelligent virtual assistants -- the coming-soon revolution I wrote about here recently.

Consumers are falling in love with their Amazon Echos and Google Homes. These virtual assistant appliances thrill because you don't have to pull out your phone and find and launch an app. You just talk. And the appliances talk back.

Once people have these in their homes, they want them in their cars, offices and everywhere. But plugging in "appliances" all over the place is inelegant. True ubiquity (as well as improved fidelity, lower cost and enhanced personalization and privacy) will be enabled by wearing the virtual assistant appliance on your physical person.

Hearables are one solution. This new category of wearables that I told you about in this space involves earbuds with wirelessly connected computers built in. Hearables are great, but aren't practical for everyday, all-day use. They're uncomfortable after a few hours, which doesn't matter, because their batteries don't last that long.

Invisible smart glasses will prove to be far more practical. With batteries that last longer than a full day, and no uncomfortable "bud" in your ears, they'll be just like wearing the glasses you're already wearing.

Unlike Google Glass, hearables or even smart watches, invisible smart glasses are perfectly "sticky." Because they're your glasses, you'll wear them all day, every day, even if the battery is dead.

After pondering the promise of invisible smart glasses like Vue glasses, it's clear to me that ordinary glasses that deliver your A.I. virtual assistant are the perfect wearable. They're socially acceptable. They're "sticky." And you're already wearing glasses.

Once you see invisible smart glasses, the future of wearable computing comes into focus.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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