Oakley Inc. is developing technology that can project information directly onto lenses, putting the sunglass maker into potential competition with Google Inc. (GOOG)
The technology would let Oakley, a division of Italy’s Luxottica Group SpA (LUX), make hardware that’s comparable with Google’s Project Glass, an experimental effort to build smartphone features into eyewear, Oakley Chief Executive Officer Colin Baden said in an interview.
Companies are stepping up efforts to build a wider range of electronics -- including articles of clothing -- that can connect wirelessly to the Internet. The market for so-called connected devices, a broad category that includes smartphones, tablets and PCs, may surge to 1.84 billion units in 2016, more than double the figure for last year, according to research firm IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts.
“As an organization, we’ve been chasing this beast since 1997,” Baden said. “Ultimately, everything happens through your eyes, and the closer we can bring it to your eyes, the quicker the consumer is going to adopt the platform.”
Oakley would initially target athletes with products based on the so-called heads-up technology, Baden said. Oakley could develop a similar product for the U.S. military through Eye Safety Systems, a subsidiary that specializes in eyewear for military and government agencies, he said.
“Obviously, you can think of many applications in the competitive field of sports,” Baden said. “That’s the halo point of where we would begin, but certainly you can transcend that into a variety of other applications.”
‘Barrier to Success’
Early versions of the product would not be cheap, Baden said. The product should be able to function on its own, while also working with a smartphone wirelessly using Bluetooth, he said. The device might be controlled with voice commands, similar to Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s Siri software, he said.
“There’s a lot of interesting optical issues that come up when you’re trying to create a positive experience when interacting with these devices,” Baden said. “So the technology barrier to success is significant.”
Oakley released sunglasses in 2004 that featured an MP3 music player built in. While the Thump product line was not a big hit, it is profitable, Baden said. The latest version, the Thump Pro, costs $129 for a half-gigabyte of storage. That means it holds one-fourth the songs as the smallest iPod, yet costs more than twice as much.
Oakley has been working on technology related to heads-up displays for about 15 years, and has 600 patents, many of which apply to optical specifications, Baden said. The company would consider licensing the patents, he said.
Baden declined to comment on whether Oakley would release its own so-called smart glasses, but he said the market for such a device is ripe. He said Oakley would have an edge over more tech-savvy competitors because the company is able to create stylish accessories.
“People get very particular when they put stuff on their face,” Baden said.
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