The lucrative eyewear world doesn’t have to focus on augmented reality

Leonardo Del Vecchio, billionaire founder of the world’s largest eyewear group Luxottica, who died this week at 87, was an entrepreneur who spoke out. “It would embarrass me to walk around with that on my face,” he once confessed to the FT about Google Glass, the ill-fated augmented reality glasses.

Luxottica co-developed the device with Google and claimed he was joking, but to no avail. Del Vecchio, whose company later became a… €50 billion merger to form the even more powerful EssilorLuxottica had identified the wearable’s fatal weakness: it looked ridiculous.

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

It was impressively compelling, but also rather clumsy. The headset darkened the world from the metaverse, and I bumped into someone who was physically but invisibly in my path. When I took off the glasses and picked up my glasses, I felt just as sheepish as Del Vecchio predicted.

EssilorLuxottica has since dabbled in smart eyewear through its Ray-Ban brand. It joined Facebook owner Meta last year in launch Ray-Ban Stories, glasses with cameras and audio in their frames, reminiscent of Snap’s Spectacles. No amount of ridicule can stop US tech companies from looking for the next big device.

Meta and Apple have been investing heavily in creating mixed virtual and augmented reality headsets that can overlay data and images with a wearer’s worldview, and may launch products later this year. Apple plans to build AR technology into glasses that look more like the real thing.

But I wonder how convinced Del Vecchio really was by these visions of the future for an industry he knew better than anyone after he founded Luxottica in 1961 as a supplier of spectacle frames in the Dolomites. He didn’t go from being raised in an orphanage to become one of the richest people in Italy without knowing what customers want.

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

It was a smart move, because it linked fashion with a cycle of updates: many people have to change their prescription every year and why not buy a new frame at the same time? It can be terrifyingly expensive, leading to the rise of discount stores and direct-to-consumer start-ups, but Del Vecchio had an answer for that and bought the Lenscrafters chain in 1995.

When he finally diversified from making frames, he didn’t put a speculative gamble on visual technology, but merged in 2017 with Essilor, the French group of prescription lenses. Lens makers aren’t fashion brands – I only found out that my progressives were made by Hoya of Japan when I checked this week – but the science of vision is a steadily growing business.

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

In the mass market, there is no shortage of potential customers among the world’s emerging middle class: EssilorLuxottica stresses to investors that 2.6 billion 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 this technology is invisible: we see through it all day without noticing. Still, it easily fits into fashion frames and doesn’t require battery power to run. It will be a long time before Apple, Meta and others can produce AR glasses that are as light and comfortable.

Then there is the question of whether we really need AR glasses. It’s not clear how useful they will be, though few people understood the scope of the iPhone when it launched 15 years ago† Like heads-up displays in fighter jets and cars, they can give us directions, but messages and emojis constantly flashing before your eyes sounds like a notification nightmare.

The late Steve Jobs once referred to Apple TV as a “hobby” rather than a for-profit business akin to the iPhone, which feels like EssilorLuxottica’s current approach to augmented reality. Glasses date back to 13th-century Italy, but the technology hasn’t matured yet: there’s still plenty of potential.

When AR glasses beat the glasses we rest on our noses in both form and function, the world of glasses will be transformed once again. Until then, remember Del Vecchio’s intuition.

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