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Smart Glasses Can Upgrade Your Vision, Help You Hear Better, Too

Adding electronics to eyewear magnifies old-fashioned eyeglasses’ style, usefulness

spinner image nuance audio smart glasses that provide over the counter hearing aids inside the glasses frames
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: EssilorLuxottica; Getty Images)

Eyeglasses are all about seeing better, but a diverse and emerging class of “smart” glasses goes well beyond conventional optics and broadens the vision of what ordinary-looking glasses can do.

Some smart glasses sport digital displays that can reveal details about a landmark you come across or show you translated text. Some play music or podcasts through concealed speakers meant for you alone to hear, or they have cameras that let you snap pictures without having to pull a phone out of your pocket.  

And some promise to not only correct your vision but help you hear better.  

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Prince Charles, Prince of Wales tries on 'Google Glass' spectacles as he visits 'Innovation Alley' on May 21, 2014 in Winnipeg, Canada.
Chris Jackson Collection/Getty Images

Smart glasses had blurry beginnings

Various iterations of smart glasses have been around for a while. The debut of Google Glass dates back more than a decade, but the product never caught on in the consumer market. 

As a category, smart glasses haven’t gone mainstream, at least not yet. They’re expensive. 

Some of the most promising devices are still prototypes. And face it, you never have to charge ordinary glasses.

Techies partner with fashionistas

Comfort and style matter, too. And frankly, some smart glasses have been dorky. 

“The number one thing that you need to get right when you’re creating a consumer product that goes on your face is that it needs to be a consumer product that you’re willing to wear on your face,” says tech analyst Avi Greengart of Techsponential in New Jersey. 

It’s why partnerships between venerable tech companies and iconic eyeglass brands represent “a great step forward,” he says.

Brand familiarity. For instance, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has teamed with Ray-Ban on stylish $299 to $379 glasses that users can wear to make calls, listen to music and capture 12-megapixel ultrawide photos and videos that can be livestreamed on Facebook and Instagram. While wearing the glasses, people can talk with a digital assistant, Meta AI, that’s powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Amazon joined forces with Italian eyeglass brand Carrera on $329.99 Echo Frames. Unlike Meta Ray-Bans, Echo Frames lack a camera. You can ask the Alexa voice assistant to play music or Audible books and double-check from afar that you locked the front door or turned off other smart home devices. 

Device for your body. Anshel Sag, San Diego-based principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, compares smart glasses to a “smartwatch on your face.”

“They can be very useful, especially to an older crowd,” he says.

Smart frames may augment a person’s ability to see by displaying larger text closer to the eye, Sag says. Or your glasses could read text messages aloud and send off the reply you dictate. 

A start-up called Brilliant Labs just launched $349 round Steve Jobs-style smart glasses called Frame. They’re powered by OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, and feature visual recognition technology, language translation and a generative AI voice assistant named Noa. Frames are due out in April.

Here’s a look at a few other emerging smart glasses that promise to help people deal with accessibility challenges.

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Eyeglasses that let you see and hear

The Nuance Audio glasses slated to launch before the end of 2024 from Italy and France’s EssilorLuxottica are billed as the first pair of regular-looking eyeglasses that discreetly help people with mild to moderate hearing loss. The glasses double as over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, the kind that don’t require a prescription or visit to an audiologist. Nuance still needs the final blessing of the federal Food and Drug Administration, expected in the third quarter of this year. 

Hidden technology. Nothing goes in your ears. In simple terms, an array of microphones hidden inside the glasses’ temples capture sounds from whichever direction the wearer is facing. Sound is amplified and delivered to tiny speakers embedded in the frame. 

The company says you’ll hear what you see, which could include a person or the TV you’re watching. However, hearing a passenger in a car you’re driving may be more difficult.

Another device to charge. Placing the frame arms upside down on a charging pad will top off its battery. How long the power will last is unknown at present.

The system is designed so your own voice won’t be amplified when you speak, only the voice of the person with whom you’re talking. The glasses can be controlled through a pocket remote or companion smartwatch or smartphone app

Final pricing isn’t set, but EssilorLuxottica is looking at roughly $1,150. 

As a major eyeglass manufacturer and distributor, EssilorLuxottica is home to brands that include Ray-Ban, as well as Oakley, Oliver Peoples, LensCrafters and Sunglass Hut. For now, it has no plans to bring similar hearing aid technology into the Meta Ray-Bans.

spinner image woman wearing xander captioning glasses and reading the screen of caption text
Courtesy Xander

These glasses let you read what someone is saying

While EssilorLuxottica’s glasses are aimed at people with mild to moderate auditory issues, XanderGlasses are targeted at those with more severe or profound hearing loss. The idea is to read what you cannot hear. The person wearing the glasses pushes an On button to project real-time captions inside the glasses. 

The glasses have one display in each eye, and the brain automatically determines which eye is more comfortable focusing on the text, says Alex Westner, cofounder and CEO of Somerville, Massachusetts-based Xander

All the speech-to-text technology is built into the glasses. Though available, Wi-Fi is not required. Vuzix, a smart glasses manufacturer based in Rochester, New York, designed the glasses.

Cost of innovation. Xander has a waiting list despite a lofty $5,000 price tag. 

Optional prescription lenses for correcting distance vision drive up the bill even more. A sunglasses clip-on is included gratis to help with outdoor visibility. Software updates can be pushed to the glasses for free.

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“We’re not a medical device. Insurance doesn’t even cover hearing aids, (so) it’s a long shot to get covered by insurance,” Westner says. Xander is collaborating with the Veterans Health Administration, which could offer the glasses to qualified vets. 

Dual noise-canceling microphones capture speech, but none of the captions are stored inside the glasses or online, keeping conversations private and secure. The company claims about 90 percent accuracy in crowded restaurants, city streets and other noisy environments.

Tackling isolation. Though some people might find the glasses a tad nerdy — the frames are fairly thick — Westner says those with severe hearing loss tell him, “I don’t care what they look like anymore. You’re giving me the ability to have a conversation with my family again.”

“And then they wear them, and they’re like, ‘They’re actually nicer than I thought they would be. They’re more comfortable,’ ” he says.

Users who connect to Wi-Fi will get six to seven hours of battery life and improve captioning accuracy, Westner says. The battery lasts two to three hours without Wi-Fi. They charge through a USB-C cable in a couple of hours.

Glasses add-on may be less expensive captioning solution

A cheaper, if somewhat less elegant, approach to the problem comes from a Cupertino, California, start-up called TranscribeGlass. It has built a device that mounts onto pretty much any pair of glasses and beams near-real-time subtitles into your field of view. You can change the font size of the subtitles and position the device so captions appear where you want them to inside the glasses. 

The company’s core focus for now is transcription, though language translation is on the horizon, CEO Tom Pritsky says.

The hardware cost is $199, plus $15 a month to use an app that will let you connect to a live captioning service and save conversation transcripts. As does Xander, TranscribeGlass has a waiting list.

Glasses for the blind act like virtual guide dog

Lumen glasses from a Romanian start-up of the same name are meant to mimic the benefits of a guide dog. By incorporating artificial intelligence, autonomous driving and robotics technologies, Lumen uses a combination of motors, haptic vibrations and audio feedback to steer a blind person where it is safe to walk and help them avoid stairs, lakes, puddles and other obstacles. The system has an emergency stop to prevent someone from bumping into an object. 

Unlike conventional glasses, you wear Lumen over the forehead, making them loosely resemble a crown or virtual reality headset.

“It’s a matter of a trade-off,” says Lumen’s hardware lead, Elena Pop. “By using the device, you are able to go anywhere in the world by yourself … while the glasses are keeping you safe.”

Lumen conducted clinical trials in Europe, where the product is expected to be available at the end of this year, classified as a medical device. Units are expected in the United States in early 2025. Pricing will vary by country and is not yet public, but Pop acknowledges it won’t be cheap.

“We don’t want the blind user to pay for the device,” she says. Lumen will look for subsidy or reimbursement programs in the public and private sectors.

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