Vuzix Blade AR CES Alexa

If Google Glass and Amazon’s Alexa had a baby with some design sense, it might be the Vuzix Blade AR Smart Sunglasses. The company held court at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week to showcase its latest face tech.

The company managed to pack in some of the buzziest tech around into one of the smallest, lightest — at less than 3 oz. — and most “normal”-looking sets of connected eyewear the industry has seen. The reason is Vuzix’s singular design mandate: It must look like regular sunglasses, not geek wear. The design somewhat resembles Ray-Ban Wayfair styling, and the lenses were developed to accommodate eyeglass prescriptions.

“For mass-market smart glasses, we learned from everybody out there — whether it’s Google Glass, Microsoft Hololens or now Magic Leap — that if the form factor’s not fashionable or wearable, the world’s not going to wear it,” said Lance Anderson, vice president of enterprise sales. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the tech is.” The device must be light and comfortable and it absolutely must not make the wearer look like a cyborg.

The Vuzix Blade works like a replacement for a smartphone screen, though showing visual assets in a translucent form and suspended in midair. The visuals are adjustable to the right, left or center of a user’s line of sight. Wherever the sunglass wearer looks, the virtual display follows along, like a heads-up display. People interact with the technology by swiping the trackpad on the right side, similar to the Samsung Gear VR’s input.

The Alexa integration adds another form of input. The sunglass wearer can flip through photos and then ask the assistant for more information about the venue or strain of flora depicted. People could call up a recipe or a video cooking demo, and then ask Alexa how many tablespoons are in a half cup. (The answer is eight.)

Consumers could also shop on, say, Amazon.com, and then ask Alexa to order the item for them without actually picking up the paired Android phone that’s powering the experience.

Vuzix Blade AR CES Alexa

The Alexa-compatible Vuzix Blade may be the smallest AR glasses around.  Adriana Lee

Beyond Alexa, the use cases expand quite a bit: AR glasses are a natural fit for navigation, giving the wearer turn by turn directions as they go, as are first-person shooting games. In one demo, the user is able to track and fire at targets by physically moving and whirling around. Similar games are available in virtual reality, but with VR, the headsets are larger, bulkier and heavier. They also seal off the user’s eyes and often from the outside world as well. With AR, the real world remains in view, with the app’s action overlaid on top.

The uses will continue to grow, especially now that the company offers a development kit. With that, the unit becomes a software platform, challenging app makers to create new programs and features. One scenario, Anderson said, could be store employees looking up stock and product location without switching focus away from the customer or creeping them out.

That’s a lesson learned the hard way from Google Glass. Despite finding a fan in Diane von Furstenberg and others, Project Glass couldn’t overcome its “creep factor,” and triggered a public backlash — partly because it was impossible to tell when the camera was on. But also because the face gadget’s unabashed geekiness was front and center.

Vuzix plans to work on design, expanding available styles and adding the best tech it can fit into that slim frame.

The team has already had to make some compromises to keep the Blade’s footprint small. Right now, users can’t hear Alexa responding to their inquiries without Bluetooth ear buds, due to the lack of speaker. But when it comes to developing AR technology, Vuzix has cred. The company has been developing optical tech and wearables for organizations like Raytheon, the U.S. Postal Service and others for 20 years.

Now it’s gunning for the consumer market, alongside the business crowd. According to Anderson, the Blade will release a few units to developers in the second quarter, but hopes to ship commercially in early 2018.

“We’re focusing our technology trajectory, so we’re bringing to market products that we believe are fashionable — or at least, certainly not scary,” Anderson continued. “To maintain that form factor, we’re going to bring as much technology, features and value to the user as we can — but remain within a fashionable form factor. And then, as technology progresses, and we’re able to add more features, functions, sensors, 3-D and AR into this same fashionable form factor, we will do so.

“But,” he said, “fashion is king. Or queen.”