Tech

The lucrative eyewear world does not need to focus on augmented reality

Leonardo Del Vecchio, billionaire founder of the world’s largest eyewear company Luxottica, the died this week was an entrepreneur speaking his mind at 87. “I’d be embarrassed walking around with that on my face,” he once confessed to the FT via Google Glass, the ill-fated augmented reality glasses.

Luxottica developed the device with Google and claimed he was joking, but to no avail. Del Vecchio, whose company later went through one 50 billion euro merger to shape the even more powerful EssilorLuxottica had identified the wearable’s fatal weakness: It looked ridiculous.

I remembered it after slipping on a Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset to watch a student project at the Royal College of Art this week. It took me into the virtual interior of a ruined church, and as I walked around, I looked up from the nave and saw a virtual sky rendered with Epic Games software.

It was impressively immersive, but also quite awkward. The headset blanked out the world for the Metaverse, and I bumped into someone who was physically but unseen in my way. As I took off my glasses and got my glasses out, I felt as embarrassed as Del Vecchio had predicted.

EssilorLuxottica has since continued to delve into smart eyewear through its Ray-Ban brand. It joined Facebook owner Meta last year start Ray-Ban Stories, glasses with cameras and audio in the frame reminiscent of Snaps Spectacles. No mockery can stop US tech companies looking for the next big device.

It was Meta and Apple invest a lot in the development of mixed virtual and augmented reality headsets that can overlay data and images on the wearer’s view of the world, and may have products to market later this year. Apple plans to embed AR technology in glasses that look more like the real thing.

But I wonder how confident Del Vecchio really was in these visions of the future for an industry he knew better than anyone, having founded Luxottica in 1961 as a supplier of eyewear frames in the Dolomites. He hasn’t gone from an orphanage to become one of the richest people in Italy without knowing what customers want.

Del Vecchio’s first realization was that eyewear was ripe for morphing from a medical device into a fashion accessory. He struck a deal with Giorgio Armani to license his brand in 1988 and the company now has 20 licensed brands including Prada, Coach and Versace. It also owns Ray-Ban and Oakley, the US sports eyewear brand.

It was a smart move because it linked fashion to a cycle of updates: many people need to change their prescriptions every year, so why not buy new frames at the same time? It can be horribly expensive, leading to the rise of discounters and direct-selling startups, but Del Vecchio had an answer when it bought the Lenscrafters chain in 1995.

When he finally moved away from making frames, instead of speculating on visual technology, he merged with Essilor, the French prescription lens group, in 2017. Lens makers aren’t fashion brands – I only discovered my varifocals were made by Hoya of Japan when I checked this week – but the science of vision is an ever-growing business.

Companies like Maui Jim, which was founded in Hawaii in 1987 to make sunglasses with patented polarized lenses that block Pacific glare and ultraviolet light, are at the high end. Maui Jim sunglasses retail for an average of $250 to $300 and the company was acquired in March by Kering, owner of luxury brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent.

In the mass market, there is no shortage of potential customers in the world’s emerging middle class: EssilorLuxottica tells investors that 2.6 billion people worldwide suffer from untreated vision problems. There are now lenses to slow the progression of myopia in children and to filter blue light from computer and phone screens.

Most of these technologies are invisible: we look through the day without realizing it. Still, it fits easily into fashion frames and doesn’t require battery power to function. It will be a long time before Apple, Meta and Co can produce AR glasses that are equally light and comfortable.

Then the question arises whether we really need AR glasses. It’s not obvious how useful they’ll be, although few people grasped the scope of the iPhone when it launched 15 years ago. Like heads-up displays in fighter jets and cars, they give us instructions, but messages and emoji constantly flashing before our eyes sound like a nightmare notification.

The late Steve Jobs once referred to the Apple TV as a “hobby” rather than a profitable venture similar to the iPhone, and that feels like EssilorLuxottica’s current approach to augmented reality. Spectacles date back to 13th-century Italy, but the technology is still immature: there is still a lot of potential.

If AR glasses beat the ones we wear on our noses in form and function, the world of glasses will change again. Until then, consider Del Vecchio’s intuition.

john.gapper@ft.com

The lucrative eyewear world does not need to focus on augmented reality Source link The lucrative eyewear world does not need to focus on augmented reality

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