Developers at Amazon’s secret Lab 126 have been working on audio-only smart glass technology that would allow users to communicate with its virtual assistant Alexa, the Financial Times reported Wednesday.
The smart glasses would connect wirelessly to users’ smartphones and transfer communications through a bone-conduction audio system that would negate the need for headphones. Amazon plans to release the device before the end of the year, according to the report.
In addition to the eyeglasses, Amazon is working on a Web-based home security camera that would connect with its Echo smart speakers. Echo Show users could display the camera’s view on their screen, checking for orders scheduled for delivery to their homes, for example.
Digital assistant smart speakers are used as electronic home hubs for everything from playing music to listening to news, scheduling appointments, and ordering takeout food. In a growing number of homes, they are used to control room temperature, turn lights on and off, lower blinds, and remotely control car ignitions.
The Amazon Echo is the dominant smart speaker in the U.S., with 15 million units, or 76 percent of the domestic installed base, compared to second-place Google Home’s 5 million, or 24 percent, according to a study Consumer Intelligence Research Partners released earlier this week.
Amazon’s interest in smart glasses came to light when it began recruiting talent specializing in the tech. Even though Amazon’s smartphone aspirations fizzled, and it doesn’t boast the same kind of computer ecosystem as Google or Apple, the company does have a massive base of loyal customers who might find an Alexa-powered wearable appealing.
“The play here is to make Alexa truly universal with low friction,” said J.P. Gownder, principal analyst serving infrastructure and operations professionals at Forrester Research.
“Sure, you can pull out your Android phone and address Alexa, but that’s not ambient enough,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “What’s more ideal is an always-on mobile solution that mimics the entire home coverage of an Echo plus several Dot devices.”
Wearable technology has become an increasingly important segment of the smart devices category, as technology firms increasingly have developed smartwatches, fitness bands, headsets, smart glasses and other devices to do everything from serving as a Bluetooth phone extension to measuring fitness and vital signs, and serving as an electronic appointment reminder and calendar.
Vendors will ship 121.7 million wearable devices in 2017 — almost a 17 percent increase from 104.4 million devices a year ago, according to a forecast IDC released last week. Shipments are expected to reach 229.5 million units by 2021, which is based on an annual growth rate of 17.2 percent over the next five years.
Amazon can make these smart glasses work as long as it gets the price correctly, design them properly, and makes them easy to use, said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst, worldwide device trackers, at IDC.
Concerns that Amazon may fall prey to the mistakes of Google’s Glass rollout are unfair, he argued.
“I don’t think Google Glass is a fair comparison since that was a far more sophisticated and ambitious device that was incorrectly targeted at consumers,” Ubrani told the E-Commerce Times. “Issues of privacy and security, along with the high price tag, made Google Glass an inadequate device for the average consumer.”
There may be some wrinkles in Amazon’s smart glass plans that the FT report hasn’t revealed, said Brian Blau, research vice president at Gartner.
For one thing, the term “smart glasses” is not an accurate description, based on the functionality of the product, as it appears users will be limited to audio, he told the E-Commerce Times.
“Maybe we don’t have a full description,” he said.
Google Glass kind of “missed the mark, said Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix.
However, the world has changed in the years since Glass’ release, particularly with the growth of artificial intelligence and AR and VR technologies, he told the E-Commerce Times, noting that “hands-free connectivity to the Internet without taking out your phone is the beginning of some powerful stuff.”