SAN FRANCISCO — Google and VSP, the nation’s biggest optical health insurance provider, have struck a deal to offer subsidized frames and prescription lenses for Google Glass, the Internet-connected eyewear.
The announcement could take wearable devices, which tech analysts say are the next wave of computing, out of the realm of science fiction and into the mainstream by making them more affordable and giving them a medical stamp of approval. And it opens the door to a new level of cooperation between the health care and consumer electronics industries, which could lead to a world in which people wear or even ingest computers.
The key business model of the year for wearables is becoming embedded into the health care system,” said J. P. Gownder, an analyst studying wearable devices at Forrester, which predicts that computers that people can ingest, tattoo on their skin or embed in a tooth are three to five years from being a medical reality.
Selling wearable consumer electronics one-on-one to individual consumers is kind of a tough business,” Mr. Gownder said. By embedding them into the health care system, you can reach a mass market.”
The agreement with VSP, which insures one-fifth of Americans, is also a coup for Google, which plans to begin selling Glass to the public this year. Resistance to Glass has grown from privacy fears that the devices could be used to secretly record conversations or take photos. Some establishments have banned Glass wearers, and just this month, a man in Ohio was removed from a movie theater and interrogatedafter wearing Glass to a movie. With traditional-style frames and prescription lenses, which Glass did not have before, the computer and screen for the device are less evident and the device looks more typical — and is available even to people who wear glasses.
Some early Glass owners hacked Glass to add prescription lenses, sunglasses and other accessories.
What I’ve noticed in public is I get less interaction with people” when wearing Glass with frames, said Steve Lee, product management director for Google Glass. It’s something society’s more accustomed to.”
Wearable devices have posed a challenge to technology companies because they involve understanding fashion and health, not just software and screens.
That is why Fitbit partnered with Tory Burch and Intel partnered with Opening Ceremony to make smart bracelets, and one reason Apple hired Angela Ahrendts, former chief executive of Burberry, to oversee retail. Some health insurers and big companies have offered wearable devices like the Fitbit or Jawbone UP as part of corporate wellness programs, and discounts to employees who improved their health with the gadgets.
But Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, said she was not aware of other insurance companies offering coverage for wearable devices.
We know our 64 million members are seeing and hearing about Google Glass and how it will affect their lives and vision, so we are really focusing on the eye health management perspective,” said Jim McGrann, president of VSP Vision Care, VSP’s insurance division.
We see this whole concept of smart eyewear continuing to evolve as an opportunity to provide instant information,” he added.
The hurdle to persuade people to wear a computer on their bodies is lower if the computer is attached to something they are already accustomed to wearing, like glasses or a watch.
Google’s design team, led by Isabelle Olsson, designed frames for Glass in four styles, made of lightweight titanium, partly because Glass’s processor and battery add weight. Google also plans to offer two new styles of clip-on sunglasses for $150 each (Glass is sold with another style of clip-on shade). The color, frame and shade choices will offer 40 style variations for Glass, Mr. Lee said.
The Glass computing device, which costs $1,500 for people invited to buy the current version, will retail for several hundred dollars less than that later this year when Google introduces the consumer version. The titanium frames are $225. VSP will reimburse members based on their prescription plan, with an average reimbursement of $120, plus the cost of buying prescription lenses, but it will not subsidize the computer portion of Glass.
VSP and Google created a training program for optometrists to learn how to mount the Glass device on frames and fit Glass on people’s faces. It is important that the nose pads are adjusted so the screen is not in people’s direct field of vision, said Dr. Matthew Alpert, an optometrist in Los Angeles who is on the board of VSP Global, the insurer’s parent company. A VSP lab in Sacramento will cut the lenses for Glass frames.
Nathan O’Kane, a traffic engineer in Salem, Va., did not wait for Google to introduce new styles. He bought an old pair of sunglasses on eBay and used a saw, a sander and a drill to attach them to his Glass.
I definitely think that the sunglasses make Glass look less obvious or more discreet,” he said. You definitely see people whispering and pointing, but I let the really skeptical people try it on, and after they use it for two or three minutes, they think it’s really cool and useful.
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