J030-Content-SmartEyeglass_SQGoogle Glass was the first iteration of the futuristic concept of computerized eyeglasses. The product came out to much acclaim, but it quickly became the target of derision and criticism, and then fizzled on the vine when the company discontinued them after a number of cutting-edge techies had laid out $1500 each to be part of the beta testing program. That made for some (understandably) unhappy campers.

Now Sony has announced that they will be giving the idea a try with their SmartEyeglass Developer Edition, which works a little differently and costs a little less. Will they overcome the obstacles that took Glass down? Only time will tell.

I was a little unsure about the value of Google Glass at first but I have become a big fan of the basic premise, if not necessarily the execution. I believe wearable technology is the next step in an evolution that has brought us from room-sized mainframe computers in the 60s to the powerful pocketable devices that most of us carry everywhere today.

The incredible shrinking computer is all about convenience and a computer that fits on your body, one that you don’t have to dig out and tie up your hands to use, is the ultimate in convenience. That shrinkage has also brought with it necessary changes in the way that we interface with the technology, going from keyboard/mouse to touch screen to voice. They say someday we’ll be able to control our computers with our minds – an idea that’s both exciting and frightening – but that’s probably still a long while down the road. Wearables are real, right now and poised to become a “must have” at any moment.

That moment won’t come, though, until a vendor comes up with the right design and price point. Smart phones were around for many years but remained a niche market until the iPhone hit on the right combination of luck, timing and ease of use. At this point, Google Glass seems to be in position similar to the IBM Simon Personal Communicator. Although only true geeks remember it, Simon was the first device that could be called a smart phone (although the term hadn’t been coined at the time).

Sony’s decision to jump into the wearables market with SmartEyeglass is both surprising and perfectly natural. On the one hand, the company’s financial difficulties and loss of revenues in its smart phone, TV and motion picture divisions might cause one to write Sony off as a has-been. That might be a mistake.

Whatever its business mistakes, Sony has created some of the most aesthetically beautiful and innovative electronics products over the years. Many years ago, I fell in love with VAIO T-series, which was the first truly compact laptop that had a great keyboard, beautiful display and functioned well. The VAIO X, which came in a champagne gold limited edition, was a work of art – albeit not quite powerful enough for my tastes. More recently, the Xperia smart phones and tablets are premium devices that, although they haven’t been big sellers, have drawn the appreciation of “geeks with taste.”

With that in mind, Sony seems like a more logical fit for the wearables market. A chief complaint from Google Glass users or potential users had to do with the nerdy look and lack of fashion sense demonstrated by the designers. This is true of other wearables, as well. I have a Fitbit Charge and I love its functionality, but I wish it was a bit more attractive so I could also wear it with dressy clothes without looking out of place. I would love to have a smart watch, but at this point in time all are too big and bulky and/or just plain ugly for me to seriously consider wearing every day.

Glass drew complaints from non-users in relation to the privacy aspect of having Glass-wearers among us, with the capability to surreptitiously photograph and record our actions. One could argue that much of this public distain and backlash was caused by the appearance of the glasses. “Spy glasses” with built-in recorders have been available for many years, but with Glass the potential to record was “in your face,” not hidden. Smart glasses that are indistinguishable from ordinary eyeglasses most likely would not have inspired nearly so much angst.

Sony’s glasses have the potential to overcome the fashion obstacle, due to the difference in the way they operate. Instead of having a computer built into the glasses, SmartEyeglass is really more of an interface taking the place of a screen and including sensors (gyro, accelerometer, compass) and microphone, which connects to your Android smart phone. The phone does the processing.  In contrast, Google Glass could be paired to your phone to display your social networking notifications or use the phone’s 4G network, but it also had its own built-in wi-if and ran its own apps.

Because it serves as interface to the phone, SmartEyeglass also has the potential to support more apps – and more sophisticated apps that require more processing and memory resources – than Glass. Sony has released a Software Developer’s Kit (SDK) for those who want to create apps to work with the glasses.

There is plenty of potential here, but Sony’s current prototype doesn’t yet live up to it, especially in the fashion area. If anything, it’s bulkier and less low-profile than Google Glass; it looks a lot like the glasses that come with 3D television sets. It also requires a handheld controller/battery pack that connects to the glasses via a cable, making the wearer look a bit like a Secret Service agent with a cord running down under the clothing. However, the battery and controls are expected to be built into the glasses in future versions.

Sony’s glasses are expected to cost less than Google’s – a little over half as much, at $800 something vs. $1500 – but the lower price is negated somewhat by the cost of the phone that’s required to run it. I suppose you could discount that by saying everyone (or at least everyone who is in the market for smart eyeglasses) already has a smart phone anyway so there’s really no extra cost involved.

In January, Sony announced a new product called SmartEyeglass Attach that, as its name suggests, attaches to a regular pair of glasses, making it possible for those of us who wear prescription lenses to use the technology. It’s light but not exactly low-profile – although we can hope it will be refined and made to be a bit less conspicuous. Sony plans to start production in the coming year.

The world of wearables is in its infancy but I have a feeling that within the next three to five years, both smart watches and smart glasses will come into their own and well before 2020, we’ll have many choices that are both fashionable and functional.

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