The top-requested Google Glass improvement is now a reality, as Google unveils its plan for prescription Google Glass frames.
Available Monday at the Google Glass Web site, prescription frames for the Internet-enabled headset cost $225, in addition to the $1,500 entry fee to the Explorer program. Google is adding four titanium frame styles -- Bold, Curve, Thin, and Split -- and two new tinted shade styles -- Classic and Edge -- to the mix. The tinted shades will cost $150.
Google expects public availability of Glass beyond the Explorer program to happen in late 2014.
The styles are based on existing popular trends in the eye care industry, said Steve Lee, Glass' product director. Prescription frames are the most-requested improvement to the Explorer program by current Glass owners, he said.
Counting Glass' five colors and its original frame and shade, Google Glass owners will be able to mix and match up to 40 combinations of colors, frames, and shades.
"We think they'll accommodate most people's tastes. Anybody who is familiar with the process of getting [an eyeglasses] prescription filled will be familiar with how you get prescription Glass," Lee said.
The simple frame that Glass launched with still will be available for people who don't want to upgrade to a frame that can handle lenses, although Google confirmed last November's rumor that it has partnered with US eye care insurer VSP to help reduce the cost.
Jim McGrann, president of VSP VisionCare, said that the eye care insurer has been talking to Google specifically about Glass for "a little more" than year. VSP won't only help cover the cost of the frames and lenses, but it's currently training doctors to help ensure that people who own Google Glass have it properly fitted for their eyes and frames.
Optometrists trained to fit Google Glass to the new prescription frames are currently located only in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, McGrann said, although Google has plans to quickly expand to other cities.
"Our goal is to have 6,000 doctors trained by the end of the year, throughout the country. We have 200 trained so far," he said.
Dr. Matthew Alpert, a 17-year veteran optometrist who also currently serves on VSP's board of directors and is now the company's chairman of optometric innovations, works as a liaison between Google and VSP. "We need to make sure that Glass is fitted properly, and that the lenses are fabricated properly," he said. "A home run for me would be a positive patient experience."
Google and VSP have a longstanding relationship, as VSP has provided Google's eye care insurance since the company was founded. As part of VSP's nationwide reach, it has more than 30,000 doctors on its rolls.
Given how new Google Glass is, it wasn't surprising that McGrann defined success in broad, somewhat nebulous terms. For patients insured by VSP, it will be that they get the "proper information" and "proper care" about Glass, "making sure that they're working closely with their doctor." On the doctor side, he said it's about getting them trained and comfortable with making Glass adjustments to accommodate prescription lenses.
"In the certification process, we've shown doctors the evolution of the device, what it's intended to do," Alpert said, noting adjustments such as the placement of Google Glass' prism in relationship to the prescription lens.
Alpert is predicting a "huge interest" in prescription Glass.
What Glass won't be able to accommodate, however, is everybody's prescription.
"Extreme prescriptions outside of +4 or -4 won't work, but most people should be covered," he said. Bifocals and trifocals, he said, will depend on the optometrists' recommendation.
Alpert said that the problem wasn't the frame, but controlling the impression that Google Glass creates on the wearer. It's message control.
"The frame I'm sure could accommodate higher prescriptions, but there's a lot of variables when you start expanding the prescription," he said.
Lee thinks that prescriptions will go a long way toward spreading the social acceptability of Glass. "We have evidence that it could double the demand for Glass," he said, noting that "60 percent of Americans need corrective vision."
Lee and his cohorts on the Glass team are placing a big bet on tying Glass adoption to existing behavior. Your eyeglasses won't just correct your vision, Lee said, but provide, "directions, live translations, really cool stuff."
The idea is that when you go to grab your eyeglasses or sunglasses in the morning along with your wallet and keys, you'll have Glass already there for you.
Part of that is creating a purchasing experience not all that different from how people currently buy glasses. Google wants people to buy Glass with the frame they want, and then take it to an optometrist's office to have the prescription filled.
Lee said that Google designed the frames in-house, and is working with a Japanese manufacturer "that's an expert at making titanium frames." Titanium was chosen because of its low weight, flexibility, and the ease with which it can be fit to different faces, while the shades are made by sunglasses maker Maui Jim.
However, Lee added that you don't have to get a prescription filled to get the new Glass frames.
"The product we deliver comes with blank lenses. They're high quality and you can use them as we deliver it," he said.
Google advises against leaving the Glass unit with the frames while the prescription is being filled. The Glass hardware can be removed from the frame with a tool included with the standard Glass kit, Lee explained.
He hopes that the Glass Titanium collection of frames will inspire other eyewear makers to design their own frames for Google Glass, similar to how the Nexus line demonstrates what's possible with Android hardware.
"This is just the start," Lee said. "You'll see that a lot of different styles can be accommodated."
One of the larger goals of the prescription availability is that people who wear eyeglasses regularly will help make Glass itself more palatable to the public. Getting people to be more accepting of Glass remains a challenge for Google, as demonstrated in an Ohio movie theater last week when a moviegoer found himself accused of bootlegging a movie while wearing Glass.
For VSP's McGrann, the key point is that insurance will provide a way to get people accustomed to Google Glass -- both elite Explorers and non-owners.
"The more people using the technology, the more comfortable people are. I think that it will help get [Glass] more mainstream," he said.
A Google spokesperson said that the Ohio man's frames were not officially sanctioned prescription frames from Google, showing that there's already a market for prescription glasses with Google Glass -- at least, among Glass owners. It still leaves open the question of how the general public will react once Glass is available to all.
Corrected at 11:02 p.m. to fix the spelling of Dr. Matthew Alpert's name, and to identify the Classic shades as new.