Just shy of a year after the Google Glass Explorer edition started arriving on early adopters’ doorsteps, Google is announcing a way for people who need prescription glasses to use it. The company is releasing four different frames that can both fit the Google Glass hardware and accommodate corrective lenses. Glass is still limited to the small group of people who have been accepted into the "Explorer Program" (a wider consumer launch is planned for later this year), so while it’s good that these frames make Glass usable for more people, it’s not yet available to all.
All four frames are available today for $225. That's alternately pricey or reasonable, depending on how you buy glasses, but any potential buyers will also need to spend $1,499 on Glass itself — which is to say it’s likely only those with a decent amount of disposable income would be interested anyway. If you’ve already bought Glass, you can just buy the frames and attach your current device.
Google is calling the new frames the “Titanium collection,” and it has designed them itself rather than partnering with an outside company like Warby Parker. But Google taking on the design itself is actually pretty good news, because all four options are as good-looking as you could reasonably expect them to be — considering that they’re designed to work with a computer attached to your face.
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"This is not a new technology, this is a new accessory to the technology."
All four frames are made of titanium — of course — and though they're limited in style to thin and light designs, they're surprisingly evocative. "When you walk into a glasses store they have thousands of styles," lead Glass designer Isabelle Olsson says, but she maintains that "when you start to categorize them you realize that there are only about six to eight styles that people wear." While more styles would be better — and are likely to arrive someday — for now Olsson has done a decent job refining those thousands of styles into "silhouettes" that match up with Glass.
To be clear, these new frames aren't a new version of Google Glass. Olsson says that "this is not a new technology, this is a new accessory to the technology." The original system was actually designed from the start to be modular, with a tiny screw that mounts the electronics to the frame. The slate-colored metal frames work well with any of the colors that Glass comes in (and there are matching accents). The simple designs might not quite rise to the "iconic" level that Google is aiming for — attaching a screen will do that — but at least the two pieces look like they were meant to go together.
Unfortunately, these new frames won't really work without Glass. Because the right stem is shorter than the left, you won’t be able to wear them comfortably on their own. Olsson prefers you think of the frames and Glass as a singular unit. "The most important thing when you design something that's supposed to be modular is that it doesn’t feel like Lego," she says. "It needed to feel like once it's on there, it feels like a complete product, versus something that feels hodge-podged together." Be that as it may, making these new frames a single unit means that you're going to need to keep your original glasses around for when Glass's battery inevitably dies on you. Wearing Glass is one thing; wearing it when it's completely inert is something else.
Although these frames can be used if you have bad vision, they don't come that way. Google isn't about to get in the business of providing prescription lenses itself — it would rather leave that up to your optometrist. The company has partnered up with "preferred eye-care professionals" it has trained up on Glass so they can create your lenses — or you can just use your own doctor. Either way, it means an additional cost (and an additional wait), but it also makes more sense. VSP, a large healthcare provider, has said it would reimburse members for a portion of the cost of the frames and is leading up the program to train optometrists in how Glass should be fitted.
The frames will ship with basic, non-prescription lenses — and Olsson says that some people may just opt to use those rather than the headband the Glass kit ships with. That actually might make some sense: there's a balanced, less tech-centric ethos to the new frames that makes the whole setup feel a little bit less "in your face" (excuse the pun). To go along with the new frames, Google is also releasing two more sunglasses, which are a little less cyberpunk than the original.
How do they feel? Surprisingly good. I've worn glasses for nearly 20 years now and so I'm used to the feel of them, and these new frames didn't seem alien. That's in stark contrast to using Glass without the frames, which despite Google's best efforts always felt a little weird on my ears and nose. Then again, the battery pack was still enough to give me a "wonky ear" that stuck out a bit a la Stephen Colbert. That's the price you pay for living in the future.
Will these new frames make Glass more socially acceptable, or at least make it seem less oddly futuristic? That's hard to say — there's no getting around the fact that you have a camera strapped to your head, but at least it's attached to a piece of wearable technology that's been around for hundreds of years instead of a half-dozen months. To my eyes — both wearing them and looking at them — they look better. But make no mistake, this is still Google Glass, and you're still likely to get into some awkward conversations.
Olsson is pretty relaxed when the weirdness of Glass comes up — it's obviously the most common question she has to face when talking about the product. "It's interesting to see the parallels with headphones," she says. "The fact that people walk around with these huge headphones is kind of crazy, in a way. But now you don't think about it as technology, you think about it as something that delivers music to you."
Google Glass may never be invisible, but can it become normal?
Headphones (and glasses and watches and all manner of other "wearable" technology) crossed that chasm of weirdness, but Glass has a long way to go before it seems normal. Google's new prescription frames won't change that — but they will give more people a chance to try.