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Making smartglasses more than a gimmick

11/02/2019By Myles Hume
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With tech experts tipping smartglasses to be as transformative as smartphones, eyecare leaders say it’s time to wake up to the possibilities for patients and practices. MYLES HUME investigates what the future holds for this revolutionary sector.

The race to develop eyewear technology for mainstream consumers has been one fraught with risk and failure.

Even giants such as Google, Intel and Snapchat have been forced to deal with numerous setbacks and scrapped projects in the pursuit of the wearable technology.

However, the turbulent nature of developing smartglasses – an industry still in its infancy – has done little to perturb companies looking to seize upon society’s insatiable appetite for connectivity, efficiency and immediate information.

Many experts have surmised that early prototypes failed due to their limited functionality and questionable aesthetics. However, through recent advances, manufacturers are now producing affordable products that perform as well as smartphones. Crucially, the latest forms are almost indistinguishable from regular glasses, making them a highly attractive accessory for everyday eyewear users.

With research showing 54% of Australians now need corrective lenses for vision problems, it’s becoming more difficult for primary eyecare professionals to ignore the various technological developments and attachments set to become part of standard eyewear.

Patients trust that optometrists are knowledgeable in all areas of vision, and this will inevitably lead to questions about the appropriateness of these products, and the effects technological components may have on eye health. In a professional context, leading optometrists have said there is potential to streamline practices with smartglasses, extending into ocular imaging, data comparisons and remote live interaction with clinicians or patients.

The market offers products varying in design and purpose. Industrial employees can watch training videos through smartglasses on the factory floor; cyclists and runners can track distance and heart rate; and office workers are able to monitor their emails and conduct hands-free phone calls. Even tourists stand to benefit, as getting lost becomes a thing of the past thanks to turn-by-turn directions appearing on a holographic screen.

Prices are dependent on the level of technology, ranging from $130– 1,400 for mainstream products and $5,000 for industrial use.

However, companies remain wary that momentum in the market is only a recent phenomenon. The challenge now is for them to develop models that appeal to the masses and ensure their success isn’t short lived.

Intel
Intel's cancelled Vaunt smartglasses

Trials and tribulations

Tech developers may only just be beginning to see the fruits of tireless research and development ventures. Like other smart wearables (watches and jewellery included), smartglasses, at times, have been a hard sell.

Perhaps most the infamous case was the Google Glass failure of 2013.

It was the first attempt by any company to propel the world further into the digital age with smartglasses, but, although it had many desirable features, critics said Google failed to identify its market. The glasses also weren’t without controversy and were banned from several locations due to privacy concerns over its potential to record inconspicuously.

However, the heaviest criticism was reserved for its design. Tech commentators said they looked unnatural, and resembled something in its prototype phase, making it unpalatable for mainstream eyewear users.

Snapchat, the social media giant, is another company whose foray into the market backfired. Analysts say it mismanaged its marketing campaign, and users soon discovered the product possessed few capabilities. As a result, the company was forced to write off US$40 million (AU$55.4 m) in stock.

Meanwhile, computer chip manufacturer Intel developed a highly acclaimed product that used laser technology to reflected messages and alerts into the retina. However, it faltered two months after launching, much to the surprise of the industry.

So, while Apple CEO Tim Cook breathed renewed optimism into the market last year by stating smartglasses could be as transformative as smartphones were, consumer sentiment is still somewhat tempered by previous failures.

Yet, these setbacks have failed to deter the many companies still in the smartglasses market, with even Google finding redemption through new projects.

The many failures have also served as lessons, and companies have taken note of their competitors’ shortfalls. As a result, more discrete models have emerged and tech experts believe the market finally contains offerings that appeal to the wider population.

Fishing the mainstream

Despite only launching in October last year, North co-founder and CEO Ms Stephanie Lake has audaciously declared her company will succeed where others have failed.

“Eyewear is incredibly personal. When you buy glasses you’re weighing a combination of fit and personal expression to find the perfect pair for you. That process is very much at odds with how consumer electronics are built and sold today,” she says.

“Others have tried and failed to create smartglasses people love because they built a computer to wear on your face and made the glasses as an afterthought. We did it the other way around. We designed Focals to be glasses first and invented new technology that we could conceal inside.”

North’s Focals smart glasses ($1,400) have featured heavily in mainstream media since the company began conducting pre-order sales last year, with headlines stating these may be the first pair of smartglasses people “actually might want to wear”.

Customised for each client, Focals currently come in two sleek styles. They feature a transparent, holographic display that only the wearer can see, which floats at arm’s length and connects them to messaging apps, Uber, weather information, personal calendars and Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa. A prescription model will be available soon.

“The glanceable and minimalist interface gives you control over what’s happening in your digital world without pulling you away from what’s in front of you,” a company statement read.

However, North is not the only smartglasses company that has placed a premium on style. Vue smartglasses ($350) are a new and direct competitor to Focals due to its commitment of concealing its high-tech components. It too is a relative newcomer, and the company is under intense pressure from pre-sale customers to eventually distribute its product.

Designed for everyday use, Vue glasses are available in plano, sun lens and prescription forms. Arguably, its most interesting feature is the open ear design, which uses bone conduction audio technology to transfer stereo sound to the wearer’s inner ear without the use of earbuds, including music, hands-free calls, navigation and notification. It also counts steps and calories, and recharges wirelessly in its case.

While the product has been widely praised by tech reviewers, Vue has a swell of frustrated customers complaining about delays in distribution. According to the company’s Kickstarter website, it’s still grappling with perfecting production processes. Problems include applying correct amounts of adhesive, and static shock affecting the circuitry electronics. The company has missed multiple production deadlines, despite generating more than US$3 million (AU$4.15 m) in funding, but appears set to begin shipping in 2019.

“We’ll keep working diligently to get the units out as soon as possible. With this latest round of production work, we believe most major issues are now out of the way,” a recent statement on the company’s website stated, indicating the challenge this fickle sector still poses, particularly for newcomers.

ODG
ODG's R-7HL smartglasses
Vue smartglasses
Vue smartglasses
Vue smartglasses
Vue smartglasses

ODG
ODG's R-7HL
Google Glass
Google Glass
North
North's Focals

Smartglasses and optometry

The technology is not just restricted to apps and connectivity – augmented reality (AR) and smartglasses have helped visually impaired people see again.

The eSight 3 glasses ($10,000), available in Australia since 2017 thanks to campaigning from the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB), are a wearable, hands-free device housing a high-speed, high-definition camera that captures everything the user is looking at. The video is then fed through an algorithm, which enhances the video and displays it on two, OLED screens positioned close in front of the user’s eyes.

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The resultant full colour HD images can allow some people classified as legally blind to see again in high clarity and with virtually no visual lag.

“The eSight glasses herald a new era for helping vision impaired people and in some cases, they will be life-changing. It is tremendously exciting to be at the forefront of this type of technology and share it with not only our clients, but anyone with a vision impairment,” Mr Andrew Davies, RSB adaptive technology manager, said.

Beyond this, smartglasses are also expected to play a greater role in the modern optometric practice.

Professionally, American Optometric Association new technology committee member Dr Dominick Maino believes optometry could be at the forefront of incorporating smartglasses into the practice.

Highlighting two key areas, Maino said in a practice management context the technology could allow optometrists to maximise face-to-face interaction with patients and staff. Support staff could coordinate the clinic through simple hands-free voice calls into the headsets.

A secondary – and more innovative – use would be in clinical applications. Practices of the future could implement smartglasses in a manner similar to the slit-lamp, Maino suggests. With appropriate optics, doctors could view the retina and record the exam directly into electronic health records.

“None of these are a thousand years in the future; all of them are possibilities in the next 20 years, I would think,” he says.

In the workplace

Optometrists aren’t the only profession expected to benefit from advanced eyewear technology. AR is also having a revolutionary effect in oil exploration, mining, chemical production and manufacturing sectors.

Tech aficionados are keen to point out AR differs from smartglasses. Smartglasses display useful information to the eye, such as message notifications and instructions, whereas AR glasses are capable of sensing the environment and presenting live information in a way that it feels like it’s in reality.

Tech reviewers commonly point to ODG’s R-7HL ($4,900) as one of the most robust products on the market for the workplace. The company itself claims they are the world’s first hazardous location and THX-certified product that performs both smartglasses and AR functions.

ODG is a San Francisco-based company that boasts a quartet of smartglasses models. Last April, it unveiled plans to merge oxygen masks and aircraft visual displays into one headset to help pilots in emergency landings involving smoke and fire.

“As with the smartphone, the demand is there for robust and rugged devices that can aid productivity, but the benefit with smartglasses is that your hands are free and your head is up, bringing even greater efficiencies and safety protection,” a company statement said.

The R-7HL model blends physical and digital environments into a new reality, featuring sensors that can monitor altitude, heat, ambient light and humidity. It also withstands military grade testing for drop, shock, vibration, low pressure and temperature extremes. It’s fitted with a four-megapixel autofocus camera, WiFi, Bluetooth, and it can display training videos and automated task lists.

In 2015, vehicle manufacturer Volkswagen made headlines when it announced smartglasses had become standard-issue work equipment for employees at its Wolfsburg plant.

Using Google Glass, plant logistic personnel automatically received storage locations or part numbers directly in their field of vision. Touch or voice control allowed hands free use while working. The camera within the glasses has barcode reader technology, which would then shine red or green depending on whether the employee took the correct part.

Google Glass
Google Glass

Active wear

The sporting arena is another sector manufacturers are tapping into, as athletes – amateur and elite alike – seek an edge over their opponents.

Everysight is one such company that has developed ‘a fighter jet display experience’ for cyclists and tri-athletes. Wind-resistant with augmented reality features, the company’s Raptor model (AU$800–980) delivers real-time information on navigation, distance, speed, power, heart rate and calories burned. These features can all function with various lens tints.

“Current smartglasses obstruct the rider’s vision. The Raptor provides riders with a true augmented reality experience by floating information crisply and directly before the eye without blocking an athlete’s vision, meaning they can safely access and analyse vital information on-the-go and maximise their performance,” Everysight CEO Mr Asaf Ashkenazi said.

For developers, an advantage in producing smart eyewear for sportspeople is that it doesn’t demand the same aesthetic qualities as everyday products. In essence, futuristic-looking models don’t look out of place in the sporting arena.

This is evident in SOLOS smartglasses ($700), which have been dubbed the Google Glass for sport, and use a similar heads up display that sits in front of the right eye.

SOLOS are capable of many of the same tasks as Everysight, however, a key reason for its popularity among elite cyclists, including US Olympic athletes, is its ability to create audio and visual cues that offer live guidance prompts during training sessions. An advanced group chat feature also allows multiple users to talk with each other, including coaches, to provide real-time guidance.

“As experienced athletes know, when you look down at your watch or bike computer, your form suffers; you slow down and this affects your finishing times. Add to this taking the time to scroll through features on your smart watch, bike computer or music device, and those seconds start to make the difference between an average performance or your personal best,” Mr Ernesto Martinez, SOLOS program head, says.

Eye health

One factor optometrists need to consider with the impending popularity of smartglasses is the impact they could have on the eye health of patients.

Dr Kevin Wheat, a graduate of Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, and Dr Nathan Bonilla-Warford who specialises in vision therapy and orthokeratology, discussed this recently in an article for Review of Optometry.

Although they anticipate smartglasses won’t cause serious ocular problems, there are concerns about mild symptoms as patients adapt to the device. For example, due to the image being displayed above the horizon, patients will spend more time in upgaze, which could cause ocular fatigue. Also, patients with ocular surface disease could experience more dry eye symptoms, akin to computer vision syndrome.

Other professionals have highlighted problems with displays away from optical centre inducing unwanted prism. They are also concerned traditional design parameters won’t accommodate strong prescriptions and the fact it can distract the user away from a task at hand, such as driving.

Wheat and Bonilla-Warford spoke to Ms Danielle Pretty, an optometrist in New Zealand, who has a patient (a professional photographer) using smartglasses with a heads up display in front of the right eye. The patient has alternating strabismus and right amblyopia, meaning that the image is shown to his non-dominant eye.

“There is some debate about whether patients should use the device with their dominant eye. Some manufacturers have commented that users may feel more natural using the display with the dominant eye,” Wheat and Bonilla-Warford said.

“Yet, some people are able to adapt to using the device comfortably in their non-dominant eye. It may simply depend on patient preference, so patients should be educated on which is their dominant eye.

“As smartglasses become more prevalent, high-tech optometrists will demand to offer these devices. As more people use these glasses, it will become more commonplace to discuss them with patients.”

Rapid developments in smartglasses manufacturing has intensified the spotlight on this emerging industry. Through their ability to augment reality and outperform smartphones in various environments, it appears the future is now when it comes to smartglasses.

It remains to be seen, however, whether optometrists are fully prepared to take advantage of this new reality.

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