A decade ago, smart glasses seemed to be tech giants’ next big step toward wearables and potentially of their mingling with fashion power players. But the category fizzled and has yet to widely catch on.
To be sure, not many fashion-leaning eyewear players have adopted smart glasses, a few exceptions being Ray-Ban Stories, a joint effort of the EssilorLuxottica-owned brand and Meta, and South Korean buzzy label Gentle Monster’s connected eyewear developed in tandem with Huawei.
Tech companies have understandably been more prolific.
Snap’s Spectacles camera glasses already count a high-end fashion collab with Gucci, unveiled in 2019, and its fourth generation is embedded with augmented reality displays, while Amazon’s Echo Frames are decidedly audio-only, eschewing visual tech for the Alexa voice assistant, as much as Bose’s Frames have banked on the open-ear audio formula.
Although competition is intensifying despite the category having yet to ramp up, observers are left questioning the fashion quotient.
Apple is reportedly working on launching its own version of smart glasses in 2023, but after Jony Ive, the brand’s former chief design officer and later consultant, reportedly severed ties with the company last summer, diehard Apple fans are wondering whether their style will live up to consumer expectations.
At the same time, Alphabet’s Google — one of the earliest adopters with its Google Glass in 2013, which involved a runway tie-up with Diane von Furstenberg, but which never turned into a hit given the expensive price point and vaguely sci-fi aesthetic — has been notably absent from the conversation.
For all the chatter, observers agree that if smart glasses are to become the next “It” fashion accessory, luxury consumers are unlikely to turn a blind eye to poor design.
“Design was and is a major barrier — it was physically impossible to fit the technology needed into a slim enough form factor to be wearable, and one that could hold battery charge for long enough to be useful,” said Sarah Housley, head of consumer tech at WGSN.
The cyber-punky, sci-fi look of some iterations is unlikely to sell.
Companies should be looking at what’s prominent and selling in the eyewear market, according to Anush Mirbegian, director of accessories at trend forecasting firm Fashion Snoops.
“Several of the smart glasses took on sort of a cliché idea of what we will all look like in the future. While clearly this is an innovative idea, it sits at an interesting crossroads between product design and fashion eyewear design and I think breaking out of the typical ‘futuristic’ aesthetics is absolutely necessary,” she said.
Why the fashion industry, except for those adopters already mentioned, has been relatively quiet remains an open question.
Contacted by WWD to share their plans for the category, the biggest global eyewear players declined to comment.
Only the Italy-based Safilo Group shared a brief statement saying it “has been observing the advancement of the phenomenon and monitoring its evolution over the past years and we consider smart glasses an opportunity.”
As is the case for other wearables, there’s alchemy that smart glasses need to achieve to scale, observers noted.
“We’ve seen from the success of the Apple Watch, which now dominates the smartwatch category, that one product can appeal to multiple groups of people if it’s designed well,” noted Housley.
“It sometimes takes these tech featured products a couple of versions before it is widely adopted. This in particular felt like it was trying to ride the tech wave that had already happened and smart glasses had been pushed out maybe before it was really ready to be bought into by consumers,” Mirbegian offered.
Both Ray-Ban Stories and Gentle Monster for Huawei provide a template for fashion brands to pursue. Yet consumers are likely seeking more than just great design and tech features.
User friendliness was certainly a strong barrier to adoption early on.
According to Federica Levato, senior partner at Bain & Company, size and weight, as well as the level of personalization freedom, were major setbacks to the early iterations of smart glasses.
“We believe there could be space for this specific product to be further fine-tuned, across all dimensions: fashionable and personalized design, high-tech features and compelling storytelling to increase customer awareness and eventually adoption,” Levato said.
Similarly, Housley attributed the poor consumer reception to a lack of utility — as well as some privacy concerns.
“The big launches to date have come with lots of hype, and then disappointed consumers because they haven’t turned out to add enough utility for them,” she said. “But there’s plenty of opportunity for this product category, particularly as consumer lifestyles become more tech-forward.”
EssilorLuxottica executives seem content with the market reception and performance of Ray-Ban Stories.
“We’ve been very pleased with user reception of Ray-Ban Stories to date. We’re looking forward to continuing to build on this momentum,” said the group’s chief wearables officer Rocco Basilico.
He noted how the device is available in additional styles and was updated to add software features: Ray-Ban Stories can now record up to 60-second videos, while new languages and audible notifications have been implemented.
The device is available in 10 countries, but the executive declined to disclose the number of sold items and most relevant consumer targets.
“For years, consumers have had to choose between technology that can enhance their life and accessories that don’t compromise on style. Ray-Ban Stories show the industry and consumers that they can have both. As more people experience the freedom of hands-free capture and listening, demand will increase. This will help push the eyewear industry into a new universe with great potential,” Basilico said.
He reiterated the company’s commitment to keep its tie-up with Meta running and described the opportunities ahead as “limitless.”
The size of the global smart glass market is estimated at $5.13 billion in 2022, but Levato believes interest spurred among “nerd luxury customers” has not yet translated into a sizable commercial opportunity.
Adding pressure to tech giants, and their fashion partners, are privacy concerns — a top priority for younger consumers.
Earlier this year Meta acknowledged privacy risks associated with the use and misuse of Ray-Ban Stories, especially concerning the lack of “informed consent from bystanders,” as well as the safety of people wearing the device and its effect on vulnerable groups, such as women, children, human rights defenders, or minority groups.
Although the consensus is that smart glasses would cater to younger demographics, who are more fashion-forward and tech-savvy, Mirbegian believes “Gen Z is considerate about the privacy of their information, and I believe for a product like this to really succeed you need the support of younger generations.”
“Privacy, safety, Bluetooth safety are all factors. I am not sure the customer, who is in the position to spend this kind of money, is wanting a product like this,” she added.
Meta did not elaborate on what actions it might be taking product-wise to tackle those issues, other than saying it was recommended to implement signals clearly showing that the device is recording. Ray-Ban Stories currently have a built-in red LED that lights up when the camera is in action.
Since April it has rolled out a marketing campaign in European countries that includes a TV commercial spotlighting what signals people should look for when the glasses are in use and aimed at educating people on wearable devices and smart glasses.
The “Meta Human Rights Report” detailing its impact on the world and privacy concerns did highlight another key topic that observers believe had so far not been addressed: What if smart glasses could be fashion tech’s big push in the care economy? Eyewear is a prescription device turned fashion accessory so, they agree, it would make sense.
“I imagine we will be seeing advances in technology that assist with vision difficulty as brands — finally — start to pay attention to the consumer who is visually impaired. I am thinking of this real shift toward the care economy, and real solutions for our well-being, advances in health and eye care might be the next venture for smart glasses,” said Mirbegian.
According to WGSN’s Housley, those different use cases could already be a reality, providing fashion tech with target audiences they are seemingly ignoring.
“We’re seeing really innovative smart glasses being developed that use tech to aid health and wellness, or to help people in an enterprise context — to make presentations, for example — or that use ‘augmented audio,’ with no visuals to create audio augmented reality,” she said, referencing Bose’s Frames.
Could the chatter about the metaverse and AR and VR technologies spur a second wave of adoption for smart glasses?
“The buzz around AR and the metaverse could really accelerate the adoption of smart glasses, and energize the market again. But ultimately all eyes at the moment are on Apple and its long-awaited headset/glasses,” said Housley.
“The number of different form factors that emerge…will depend on how much this becomes a fashion product, and how much it remains a tech product — and a lot of that will come down to who starts to dominate the market and capture consumer interest the most,” she noted.