30 Oct 2018
Smart Glasses Lose Out to Luxury Eyewear at Las Vegas Optical Expo
Despite the best efforts of an all-new generation of intelligent eyewear, the spectre of Google Glass' failure is proving surprisingly hard to exorcise, with high-end spectacles still by far the biggest draw at this year's Vision Expo West.
Outrageously spectacular sunglasses frames were on show alongside their more high-tech, if more understated, smart chip-equipped counterparts at the recent Vision Expo West in Las Vegas. This year, the show celebrated its 30th anniversary with record attendance figures and an undeniably positive outlook.
This, no doubt, down to the fact that demand for eyewear is expected to continue to grow in the US. According to Euromonitor, increasing numbers of consumers are making healthy lifestyle choices and are investing in both prescription and preventative eye care. Sales have also been boosted by the strengthening US economy, which has led to more money being spent on luxury and high-tech eyewear.
Rising Demand for Luxury
The luxury market is one that many of the exhibitors in Las Vegas seemed keen on targeting. Global eyewear giant Luxottica, for example, brought a wholly-revamped stand to the show, complete with the company's new digital Frame Adviser, a distinctly digital innovation that helps stores customise a product based on any consumer's face shape, eyes, hair colour and style.
Describing it as offering the sort of personal stylist experience you would normally only receive in high-end department stores, Fabrizio Uguzzoni, President of Luxottica Wholesale North America, said it was just one of the ways the company was trying to tap into the growth of the luxury market.
Explaining the company's strategy, he said: "We are seeing luxury back in a really strong way and not only in terms of the numbers we've enjoyed over the past six months. Overall, there's been a much greater collaboration with licensors, including Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and Burberry.
"Eyewear is being included much more in the overall product offering and in the communication to consumers. While it's not yet at the level of shoes or bags, we are seeing more of it being included in showrooms and on the runways. It's an opportunity for an under-penetrated category on the market as, if you think about accessories, it's an important one. You put it on first thing in the morning and it's the last thing you take off at night."
Luxury being back in vogue was one of the key themes at the trends presentation conducted by Joy Gibb, an Optician with Utah-based Daynes Eye and Lasik and a Consultant to the Vision Council, the US trade body that represents manufacturers and suppliers in the optical sector.
Maintaining that the economic upturn was seeing people spend far more on their optical needs, she said: "We're seeing brands putting bling back into frames. When people were losing money out of their retirement accounts, everyone in the industry pulled away from having the licence on the side. Now we've moved back into fun and flair."
Gibb also highlighted the growing popularity of 1980s-style frames with harsh brow lines and flashy logos, as well as angular, colourful rimless lenses. A firm believer that colour continues to be an important element in consumer choice – with bright yellows, corals and deep blues dominating the spring 2019 palette – she said: "We're not necessarily talking all yellow frames, maybe just a hint of colour on the temples or even on the inside of the frame.
"In another change, the colours of men's frames are moving from traditional black and brown towards olive green and deep blue, which is still neutral but definitely has more personality. At the same time, eye-catching untraditional lens shapes are also starting to become popular, if only among those looking to be trendsetters. While hexagon lenses may not be flying off the shelves, they do convey the general sense of being on-trend."
While the very notion of smart eyewear may still be synonymous with the late, unlamented Google Glasses, a number of exhibitors believed that may be about to change. Indeed, more than one was keen to demonstrate just how glasses are finally stepping into the electronic age, complete with self-adjusting frames and built-in smart features.
One exhibitor looking to ride this particular wave was Texas-based Dynafocals, with the company particularly keen to highlight its range of smart reading glasses, which automatically adjust frames for progressive and bifocal wearers. Thanks to built-in range finders and a head-tilt sensor, they can even tell when a user is reading or using a computer and then adapt accordingly. On top of that, wireless charging and a smartphone-linked fitness tracker come as standard.
Another company keen to burnish its credentials in the intelligent optical sector was California-based VSP Global, a vision-care health insurer that was championing the Level brand of smart glasses. While, at first glance, appearing identical to conventional glasses, each pair has a chip built into the temple, which is capable of measuring steps taken, calories burnt and distance travelled.
Outlining the company's hopes for the product, its spokesperson said: "At present, it is being tested by some 200 independent optometrists across the US before being formally launched domestically and into a number of overseas markets. For our part, we were surprised to find that the lead demographic for the product is actually older women, many of whom are trying to stay on top of their fitness goals."
Understandably, luxury brands, too, are keen to target this emerging and hugely lucrative market. Looking for first-mover advantage, Tom Ford, the Texas-based fashion brand, recently rolled out its Blue Block collection, which is said to be the first to foray into the ready-to-wear optical market by any luxury brand.
Reassuringly high-tech, the range's non-prescription lenses have been designed to filter out the blue light emitted by many electronic devices, ultimately making screen viewing more comfortable and safer. According to the company, the potential market is huge – basically anyone who uses a computer or mobile phone.
Bold and Bright
Despite such innovations, conspicuous luxury was still clearly the big draw at the event. Launched just six months ago, T Henri, a Florida-based micro-production company, was one of the newer businesses targeting this particular segment. Aiming to produce the kind of eyewear that sits well alongside "hyper-cars, mega-yachts, and private jets", its first offering was its Casino Royale colour wave sunglasses, complete with rose lenses and 18-karat gold arms.
With the company clearly pinning its hopes on the spring 2019 season being all about bold styles and opulence, Founder Tyler Gelb said: "We believe it's back to being all out and immediately grabbing attention."
More understated but still very high-end, Japanese brand Zakka was looking to entice attendees with its range of handcrafted rosewood and titanium frames in signature square and round shapes. Clearly delighted with the impression they had made at the event, company Spokesperson Johnson Yung Cheng Huang said: "People have really taken to the look of the range and have been keen to accessorise it. Plus, as they clearly love the look and the feel, they've been willing to spend that bit more."
Glasses with a unique look and feel were also going well on the Mad in Italy stand, where many showgoers were finding it hard to resist trying on the brand's flexible frames, all fashioned from nylon, stainless-steel and carbon fibre and featuring bold prints and sharp edges.
Again happy with the reception accorded the range, Marisa Moretto, the company's Partner Relations Manager said: "The US market is clearly open to something a little bit different when it comes to both design and colour. We are also finding that people love how light and flexible our glasses are, as well as the fact that they're just such a fashion statement."
Vision Expo West 2018 took place from 26-29 September at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. The event attracted more than 420 exhibitors and about 13,000 attendees.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas