The Suddenly Crowded Smartglasses Space

Matthew is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

Lately it seems that every other day brings with it news about the emerging wearable technology space. A few days ago I wrote about The Suddenly Crowded Smartwatch Space. In that article I talked about how the much hyped, but completely unconfirmed, Apple iWatch product was being joined by the confirmed Samsung smartwatch and the unconfirmed Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android smartwatch.

Just last week Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), (NASDAQ: BIDU), and Sony (NYSE: SNE) each join the fray, but this time in the smartglasses space made famous by Google Glass.

Google Glass
First a little bit about Google Glass. Officially unveiled last year, Google Glass is the company’s effort to develop and offer augmented-reality smartglasses to the masses. Google Glass is essentially a wearable computer, with the lenses acting as the display monitor. Although the lenses will only be about 2-inches wide, it will appear much larger to the user. Large enough for the user to be able to vocally interact with Google various services; searching with Google Search, navigating with Google Maps, video conferencing with Google+ Hangouts and sending and receiving text messages using Google Now (just to name a few).

At least initially, Google Glass will not be a replacement for the smartphone, but a supplement to it. Lacking any cellphone connectivity of its own, the Google Glass smartglasses will be wirelessly paired to an Android or iOS device to provide all of the internet-connected functionality. What hardware the Google Glass does include is an integrated GPS chip, an embedded camera for taking still photos and 720p video recording, and bone-vibration audio ‘speakers’ (instead of traditional earbud speakers).

Google Glass is presumed to have a release rate of Q4 2013 for the complete version, as well as a modular version to be used with a user’s existing prescription glasses soon after.

The Baidu Eye
Originally thought to be an April Fools’ Day joke, a leaked image purportedly showed a employee wearing a prototype smartglasses device. It was soon learned that the device was no joke, as it has now been confirmed by Chinese internet search giant as a real device under development. Codenamed the Baidu Eye, from what little we know this device is similar to Google Glass in many regards.

Like the Google Glass, the Baidu Eye features a small heads-up display, voice recognition, and bone-vibration audio. Not much is known about the software side of the device, but initial reports indicated that Baidu would use an open OS platform that could also be incorporated into other wearable tech devices. This leaves open the possibility for a potential Chinese competitor to Apple’s unconfirmed iWatch device. Currently though, this device is just being internationally tested on a very small scale and is nowhere near as complete as the Google Glass project.

Microsoft’s “Me Too!” Device
The latest smartglasses rumor comes to us by way of an analyst note last Thursday. In the note, the analyst communicated to investors that he believes Microsoft will release their Google Glass competitor in the first half of 2014. Not much is known beyond that. As rumors and speculations go, this one is fairly lacking. Although, considering Apple, Google, Samsung, and now Baidu all have confirmed and unconfirmed (but likely) wearable tech projects under development, it is not surprising at all that Microsoft would also follow suit. If a Microsoft smartglasses device is to be released in the first half of 2014 (potentially just eight months away), we will know for sure in short order.

Sony’s Patent Pending
A bit refreshing, this latest bit of news is not a rumor, leaked photo, or an analyst’s gut feeling. This is an actual detailed patent application Sony filed on March 21 for a “head-mounted display apparatus.” This device differs from Google Glass in two main ways. Unlike Google Glass’ single display monitor placed in front of the eyeglass lens, the Sony patent application calls for a device with two display monitors placed behind each eyeglass lens. Also different is the traditional earbuds found on the frames on the Sony eyeglasses, rather than Google’s technology choice of bone-vibration audio.

It is important to note that technology companies file for patents all the time for pretty much any and everything. Simply filing a patent is no guarantee that a company has any plans to develop and commercialize said patent. Though this patent application is one of many smartglasses-related patents Sony has recently filed for. So perhaps the Japanese tech giant is indeed preparing its own Google Glass competitor. Only time will tell.

The Dark-Horse Luxottica
(NYSE: LUX) is the world’s largest eyewear company. You may have never heard of this Italian company, but you have definitely heard of its many brands. These brands include Ray-Ban, Oakley, Vogue, LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision and EyeMed Vision Care (just to name a tiny few). Generally not known for its technological contributions, Luxottica has actually been involved in developing the technology for smartglasses optics for about 15 years, with many patents in the area.

Unlike all of the previously mentioned companies however, Luxottica is actually the only one with a smartglasses product actually available to purchase right now. Released last October, Luxottica launched the Oakley Airwave ski goggles that features a built-in heads-up display, integrated GPS and smartphone connectivity to iPhone and Android devices.

Luxottica is a rather interesting way to play the smartglasses space. Glasses are, in addition to being a medical device, essentially jewelry for the eyes. Glasses are a very personal item, displayed prominently on a person’s face for the entire world to see. While the Google Glass technology and services are great, the aesthetics of their smartglasses prototype leaves much to be desired. Known for designing, manufacturing, distributing, retailing and insuring eyewear, Luxottica certainly knows how to make and sell a stylish pair of glasses and would make a good partner for any of these aforementioned technology-centric companies.

Foolish Bottom Line
As I talked about last article, it is amazing how quickly things can change in this wearable technology space. In just a few short days, three potential Google Glass competitors entered the smartglasses space. By this time next week, we could be inundated with a dozen or so additional pieces of major news. I cannot wait! This is indeed an exciting time for the future of wearable technology.

Matthew Luke owns shares of Luxottica Group. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Baidu, and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Baidu, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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