Google Glass, the smart eyewear that has been available mostly to a select group of users such as app developers, has launched a pilot program in an old-school retail channel: optometrists' offices.
The stamp-size electronic screen mounted on the side of a pair of eyeglass frames is being sold to the public at a handful of lens-selling centers nationwide, including Rosin Eyecare on Michigan Avenue.
Since early May, Google's Travis Barnes has set up station inside the waiting area at Rosin's office at 645 N. Michigan Ave., asking visitors if they've heard of the product and if they'd like to try it. Google Glass works like a computer or smartphone, enabling users to search, snap photos, and read and respond to email. The $1,500 price includes the device and the frame but not the prescription lenses.
On Tuesday, Google announced a collaboration with fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to design eyewear for Glass. That follows an April eyewear deal with Luxottica Group, whose brands include Ray Ban and Oakley. In May, Ivy Ross, whose resume includes stints at Calvin Klein, Swatch, Coach, Bausch & Lomb and the Gap, joined Google to lead its Glass effort.
Google seems serious about distributing Glass through the prescription eyewear market. In addition to Rosin, three optometrists in California also are selling Google Glass, said Google spokesman Chris Dale.
In April, Google Glass opened sales in the U.S. for one day, Reuters said. In May, Reuters, citing a Google blog post, said anyone in the United States could buy Google Glass as long as supplies last.
So far, Rosin has sold only a few Google Glasses, but James Rosin, co-president along with his ophthalmologist brother Jonathan, said consumers are "really interested and intrigued." Rosin said more than 50 people, ages 20 to 80, showed up to a May 7 event to check out the wearable technology.
"A huge segment of the population has no idea of what it does and how it can enhance your life," Rosin said.
Rosin said his company was approached by Google after having expressed interest at an eye industry trade show.
Glass has been criticized for reasons ranging from privacy concerns to its potential to cause distracted driving.
On Tuesday morning, Rod Harrington visited the Rosin office to pick up a pair of glasses and tried Google Glass while he was there.
"How do you say good morning in French?" Harrington asked the device, then relayed, "Bonjour."
Harrington also wondered whether Glass, which is still in beta, can be used to pay bills. Barnes told Harrington that apps exist that enable the use of Google Wallet for shopping, and that other e-commerce apps are being developed. Starwood Hotels & Resorts on Tuesday announced a Glass app that will let users voice-search by destination or airport code, get turn-by-turn directions to any hotel, and see photos of amenities, rooms or local areas.
"(Glass) seems straightforward and easy to use," said Harrington, a sales consultant at Ermenegildo Zegna. "I cut my teeth on laptops and desktops and then I got an iPad, and now I have to make the leap to Google Glass."
The cost gives Harrington pause, but someday it "might be worth it," he said.
Google Glass works through a combination of voice activation, including questions and answers; swipes, which approximate a menu search; taps, which are akin to choosing an option; and head movements. A swipe down, for example, is like hitting the back key on a cellphone. The device is in passive mode until it is touched. "OK, Glass, make a call," is one command.
When the camera or video feature is activated, the display lights up so people in front know they're being photographed.
Dave Truitt, chairman of the Chicago Marine Heritage Society, asked Glass what the weather was in Chicago on Tuesday. In seconds, the device told him that it was 75 degrees, with an expected high of 84.
"The wow factor is significant," Truitt said of Glass. "I'm tempted."
Eventually, Rosin expects the public to see what Google Glass offers.
A person who makes deliveries on a bike, for example, can get voice directions without having to fumble with a smartphone.
A couple will be less likely to miss their baby's "firsts."
A foreign visitor could translate text.
"The first time I saw it was six months ago, and I'm still wrapping my head around what it can do," Rosin said.
Rosin said insurance generally covers some of the cost of the exam and the prescription lens for Google Glass.
When asked about eyestrain and Google Glass, Rosin indicated that his company's experience with users is limited but it so far has not had any complaints from patients.
"It takes a little getting use to but no one has indicated eyestrain from Google Glass," Rosin said.
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