Google Glass has an image problem.
Since its debut two years ago, the perception of the wraparound eye-level device has devolved from interesting futuristic gizmo to invasive spywear tool, despised by privacy advocates and banned in numerous bars and casinos. Google Inc. even had to post online tips to help customers observe proper etiquette.
Now Google is scoping out a market segment that could boost sales while creating a more mainstream image: prescription eyeglass wearers. Google recently teamed up with three eye-care providers — including two in Southern California — to sell its Glass wearable device directly to the public.
Wink Optometry in Calabasas and Optometrix in Brentwood are letting their customers try out Google Glass, and if they like what they see, have it mounted on traditional-looking prescription frames.
Google is betting on customers who already wear glasses to upgrade their spectacles to modern-day smart glasses. The pilot program tests a distribution channel that is likely to grow dramatically: Nearly 183 million American adults already use some form of vision correction, according to a December report by the Vision Council.
Google last month inked a deal with Italian eyewear powerhouse Luxottica Group to "design, develop, and distribute" fashion frames for Google Glass, as it does for brands such as Ray-Ban and Oakley.
And on Thursday, Google named Ivy Ross, former president of Calvin Klein's men's accessories business and executive vice president of marketing for Gap, as the new head of its Glass team.
"If you're already wearing glasses, it's not a decision you have to make — whether you're going to wear glasses or not," said Insiya Lokhandwala, a member of Google's Glass business development team. "The revolutionary part really is in the fact that now these are smart glasses that let you do more than just correct your vision."
That's what concerns privacy advocates. Although traditional frames might make Google Glass wearers less obvious, they won't directly affect the privacy issue. The bars, restaurants and casinos that ban Google Glass say they're protecting customer privacy. Whether traditional frames will make it easier for Glass wearers to sneak past bouncers has yet to be seen.
"With a cellphone camera it's pretty obvious if someone is holding up their camera and recording you," said Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer digital rights group. "If something like Google Glass becomes popular, it's impossible to tell if someone is recording. Potentially, we'll have everyone recording everything everyone else does in public all the time."
Frames for the prescription glasses are included in the $1,500 price tag. Lens costs are separate. Major eye-care insurer VSP Vision Care says it will cover part of the cost, depending on a customer's benefit plan.
Matthew Alpert, optometrist and the owner of Wink Optometry, says interest in Glass has been "huge."
"People are excited about it," Alpert said. "People don't understand it, but you just run through a demo with them and it clicks really quick."
JR Curley, 42, of Manhattan Beach, said he's been using Glass for seven months, and got the special frames and lenses for the device a few weeks ago. Curley said he wears Glass all the time.
"They're an extension of my day-to-day now. They're so easy to use," said Curley, who uses the device that is wirelessly connected to his smartphone to take pictures, send and receive text messages and check his email.
Google has limited distribution of the device, but this week it announced that a beta version is available to the general public online.
Curley sees huge potential for Google Glass for those with poor eyesight.
"What an interesting way to marry a wearable device, a wearable computer, onto something that millions of people across the U.S. physically have anyway." Curley said. "In essence, what you're doing is piggybacking on something that's existing, which to me made perfect sense, especially as someone who does wear glasses every day."
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