Wikipedia defines smart glasses as a wearable computer that adds information to what the wearer sees. While there were various attempts to realize such device over the past decades, Google definitely has the prerogative of raising the awareness of the general public for this technology. Its Google Glass finally unlocked the market of smart eyewear in 2013. Since then over a dozen commercial alternatives were launched and many more announced. And though Google has withdrawn its Glass in 2015 for a major review, several cheap Chinese copycats just surfaced. Is this market now truly emerging or is it just wishful thinking of a small herd of die-hard believers? Before opening that debate, we should avoid a Babel-like confusion resulting in a dialogue of the deaf. The initial question therefore is what each of us sees as smart glasses?
For most of us the term smart glasses will be associated with high tech electronics. And while technology might seem to be the obvious angle of approach to profile this new market, another perspective should be taken. The analogy with the traditional eyewear market provides the answer. The traditional eyewear market consists of devices to correct refractive errors in the wearer’s vision or to protect the wearer’s eyes or a combination of both. The function these solutions fulfill for the wearer is the guide to segment the traditional eyewear market: regular frames, lenses, sunglasses and safety shields. Similarly the wearer’s perspective is the right guide to segment the smart eyewear market.
As a pair of glasses protects or corrects our vision, we are entitled to expect something more from a frame called smart. According to the Romans Nomen est omen. But in times of technology hyping we might have to reverse this conventional wisdom into Omen esto Nomen. Contemplating on the notion of smart in combination with glasses might even entail a risk of irony. Traditionally, a pair of glasses has the prerogative to suggest intelligence. Looking at people wearing today’s smart glasses and evoking the nickname glasshole, one might argue about a contradictio in terminis for the term smart glasses. In spite of its nerdy or even alien image, the device rightly earns its title smart because in some way its embedded electronics strengthen the wearer. This smart contribution will be the common thread in our taxonomy for smart glasses.
One could debate whether our first category is a true segment of the smart eyewear market as it adds no information to what the wearer sees. From a broader perspective and for the sake of completeness we do include a category of what we call the Glass-Cam. Devices like the Pivothead principally consist of a small action camera integrated in a frame. They are designed to record and stream the action from the wearer’s point of view. Imagine your Youtube friends enjoying your breathtaking death ride on a mountain bike somewhere in a canyon deep down in Utah. These glasses rightfully lack a display and allow you to just focus on the reality in front of you. Rushing down that steep and narrow canyon trail, e-mail updates are probably the least of your concerns.
Google Glass, Vuzix M100 and Kopin’s Golden-I belong to what we like to call the Smart rear mirror segment. These glasses have a display discretely positioned at the edge of your field of view. They function like the rear view mirror in your car. Most of the time you’re driving you simply focus on the world in front of you. But whenever you’re about to make an overtaking movement, you like to be informed on what’s happening along and behind your car. Glasses in this category allow you to focus on reality while keeping you informed whenever it’s really needed.
Smart monocular, like Optinvent’s Ora-S, the Laster SeeThru and the Lumus DK-40, have an optical engine positioned right in front of one of your eyes. This technology allows or forces you to see reality through the display while projecting digital information in your field of view. By definition these glasses truly augment reality for one eye while keeping the other one focused on reality.
Smart binoculars are similar to the monocular. But they have an optical engine in front of each eye, augmenting a substantial part of the wearer’s entire field of view. This is a crowded segment with the Epson Moverio, the Atheer Air, the Microsoft HoloLens, the Meta 1, the ODG R-7 and the Sony SED-E1 to name a few.
Devices like the Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift belong to our last category called immersive eyewear. These goggles will abduct you from reality and plunge you into a virtual world.
Table 1 provides an overview of the 5 classes of smart eyewear and their particular focus on what matters for the wearer.
When debating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the smart eyewear market now and in the future, we should differentiate the discussion per category. But first and foremost we should distinguish the target audience between consumer and enterprise wearers. In order to earn the label smart, glasses will have to satisfy different needs for the consumer market compared to the enterprise segment. For many of the above categories fashionable is the key to seduce customers while enterprise will firstly focus on function.
In addition to the proposed taxonomy for smart eyewear, I would like to conclude with one more take away thought. Somewhere down the line, whether a consumer in his sofa or an engineer out in the field, a person needs put the device on his nose and wear it for some time. So whatever smart electronics the manufacturers stuff into the frame, it should remain a true pair of glasses or goggles in the first place. From this perspective the road for smart glasses might be longer than expected.