Not only is the partnership between the Italian Safilo Group and Toronto-based InterAxon another example of deconstructing smartglasses into useful, socially acceptable parts, but it's also a collaboration in the Fossil-Google mould. Take one company with wearable technology - that's InterAxon - and another with a long list of lifestyle accessory brands - Safilo Group - and kaboom, you're in business.
Coming into focus
Safilo X is the name of the planned series of brain-sensing glasses and sunglasses from the group's brands including Smith, Carrera and Polaroid. The first product, the Smith Lowdown Focus, is a pair of smart sunglasses in development and due to be released in September - pushing the original "summer 2017" date back slightly. It is initially aimed at typical Smith customers who are interested in maximising performance in skiing, snowsports, surfing and mountain biking.
The verdict: Smith Lowdown Focus review
The DNA of the stylish, 33g specs comes from InterAxon's Muse brain-sensing headband which I tested way back in early 2015. But the smartglasses have even more sensors inside, placed along the arms and at the nose bridge: brainwave, eye movement and facial expression-detecting EEG, EMG and EOG sensors as well as a 3-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, UV, temperature and pressure sensors.
Right now, they're designed to worn before and after sports or stressful situations, not during the event itself, and the tech is essentially invisible.
"We were not very interested in the traditional approach of bringing data onto the face of the consumer, but trying to get the key data from the person and make that useful," says Nicola Belli, innovation director at Safilo Group. "And we realised that the headband probably had the best technology. It was a matter of seeing if we could integrate it into our form factor of eyewear."
What Safilo X is really selling is performance: brain training exercises, meditation and real time biofeedback that work via companion apps to help you to focus, stay calm and get "into the zone". It's an evolving platform that will activate more of the sensors over time, varying between the different in house and licensed brands.
"We've crammed a lot into these glasses," says Derek Luke, CEO of InterAxon. As well as the sensors above, he tells us there are "a few surprises we are working on."
"Not taking away from the [Muse] headband but in many ways the signal quality is superior on the glasses to the headband," says Luke. "I don't see glasses as a wearable, it's actually something you wear. It's a totally different paradigm. It's invisible, yet it's got all this rich platform that we can surprise people with in the future."
What else can you do with brainwaves?
The burning question, of course, is whether the miniaturised brain-sensing tech actually works. InterAxon's tech measures all five bands of brainwave activity and sends the raw data to your phone via Bluetooth to process. The secret sauce is the algorithms which match these to focus, relax etc.
I was convinced in my Muse review that the sensors were accurate enough, if not 100%, to provide useful biofeedback in the app and the very action of engaging with the headband could help relax and concentrate: "We don't doubt it will help to achieve personal goals of reduced anxiety and stress or a calmer, focused mind," said Luke. "If you're in the market for a relaxation gadget, chances are you crave the routine and discipline a device like Muse can provide."
Derek Luke pointed me to InterAxon's Muse research page which includes details of a small scale study by the University of Toronto which showed "modest benefits for attention and subjective well-being" after six weeks of use. That team suggested a larger study so skeptics can keep their eye on further tests. But IBM has already used the tech to identify whether subjects are watching emotional or educational videos and researchers have even stuck the headbands on Buddhist monks to study meditation and decision making.
But back to how it might help lower beings. One of the immediate next steps after the Smith Lowdown Focus launches in a variety of sizes, colourways and lenses in September is a version for prescription glasses that people wear all day.
Thorsten Brandt, Safilo's general manager of sports outdoor and lifestyle tells us that it is "going all in" on the launch, this is no limited edition, and that there are three prongs to the future of Safilo X.
The first is launching new apps specific to certain sports for glasses like the Lowdown Focus: "So there might be a cycling app that is more focused on how do I train if I'm an endurance cyclist." The second: turning on all those fitness and activity tracking sensors for optical glasses that will be worn during activities as well as in mental prep beforehand.
Third is getting Safilo X into other models and brands. Safilo Group licenses the eyewear of lots of designer brands including Dior, Fendi, Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade. Next on the agenda seems to be another in-house sports lifestyle brand, Carrera.
"I get really excited about what else you can do with brainwaves," Brandt told us. "The idea of being able to detect drowsiness way in advance. So now you can think about driver safety and what if you had a device like that that could pre-warn you, minutes before you drift off to sleep. We have a brand called Carrera that would probably be very good in that kind of a context. That's how we're thinking about the future."
Smartglasses vs stress
As the above example indicates, just because the first smart sunglasses out of the blocks are sports oriented, that doesn't mean Safilo's ambitions stop there. InterAxon's Derek Luke mentions doctors as one group of people who may benefit. And as innovation director Nicola Belli explains, two big markets for brain enhancing glasses could be students and what he refers to as "knowledge workers".
"That's 60 million people in the USA and 110 million in Europe," he says. "They are potentially customers of this kind of performance device because they are all using their brains as their main tool for their daily life.
"And consider students. We are analysing data from a UCLA study. In the USA there are 20 million students at university and almost half of them, close to 10 million, are using medication to treat stress-related diseases related to the stress of studying."
So just as Fitbit is aiming for every person on the planet, no matter how active they are, to ultimately own a Fitbit, so too this new forerunner in the push for mental training is looking to build on the trends of mindfulness and meditation. After all, it's this day-to-day living that wears us out.
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