A couple of weeks ago, rumors began to float around that Apple was playing with the idea of producing smart glasses by next year. Now this isn’t going to be a tech-rumor-chasing article. MacRumors is the place to go for that. But it does open up a bigger conversation on why this is a big deal. Smart glasses are a relatively new invention, but what makes this different from smart glasses of the past is the rumor of including prescription lenses. While I can’t imagine these glasses would be as health-centric as the Apple Watch (known for monitoring a bunch of different health data points), glasses would be the company’s first medical device. Let’s zoom out a little and discuss why this is huge.
You might not think of it much when you put on your Caviar, Hugo Boss, or MODO frames, but your glasses are defined by the FDA as a medical device. This means they’re regulated and seen in the same light as other medical equipment, like a walking cane or wrist brace. Because they’re medical devices, it also allows vision insurance companies to help pay for your glasses. The co-pay you see at the end of your visit may just be for some of the tests we use during an examination or for the frames you chose if your insurance provider won’t cover the entire cost. With smart glasses equipped with prescription lenses coming in the near future, there’s some questions we should be asking regarding this intersection between consumer technology that is more or less for our personal enjoyment and benefit, and healthcare.
How will insurance treat it?
It may seem anecdotal, but I recall once paying less than $100 for a new pair of glasses thanks to vision insurance. Without it, my bill would have been closer to $800. Insurance plays a big role in eye care for millions of people. When people start to line up for smart glasses, many will be wondering how expensive they’ll be and whether there’s a chance of insurance covering them.
Insurance companies already have partnerships with some tech companies for wearables like smartwatches that can monitor basic health data. Last year, Apple partnered with major players like Aetna and UnitedHealthcare to provide discounts for Apple Watches. In October 2019, Devoted Health (which is a Medicare Advantage insurer) jumped on board and started offering discounts on the smartwatch as well.
With this the case, it wouldn’t be the first time we see insurance companies offer to partially cover the cost of wearable tech. But glasses are a little different. Whereas smartwatches are great for monitoring health data, glasses don’t operate the same way. As far as we know, we can’t expect smart glasses to monitor health in any capacity. Instead, they are projected to operate similar to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets: they would display information on a transparent screen in front of your eyes, on the lenses themselves. The lenses act as you would expect them to – making your eyesight sharper. So if smart glasses operate so fundamentally different from other pieces of wearable technology, can we expect insurers to provide the same partnerships?
What if I get my lenses replaced often or wear bifocal/progressive lenses?
Another rumor says Apple plans on having multiple basic prescriptions in stock at their physical stores. But there’s no mention about more complex prescriptions or bifocal lenses, which can be concerning for some people. And while many bespectacled people don’t need to change their prescriptions too often, there’s still a large portion of people who do.
These conditions aren’t challenging for us as an optometry office. We cut lenses in-house to be perfectly tuned to your prescription, including cutting lenses for bifocals and progressive lenses. In addition to that, it’s easy for us to replace lenses if you require a new prescription on a consistent basis. But what is easy for us to do could prove challenging for a company that doesn’t specialize in eye care. Having some common prescriptions on hand is fine, but doesn’t offer solutions for people that need more specially tuned lenses.
Cost again comes into the equation here. Apple is no stranger to exorbitant prices, and one can’t help but wonder if this high-price trend will affect frequent lens exchanges, as well. Taking our hypothetical insurance coverage out of the picture, a now already premium priced pair of glasses run the high chance of being even more expensive – which can be unattainable for a lot of consumers.
How effective can we expect smart glasses to be?
Remember our hot take on buying glasses online? In general, studies have proven time and time again that seemingly budget-friendly and digital-only eyewear retailers tend to be highly inaccurate in their prescriptions. If you’re thinking about getting your next pair of glasses from Zenni or Warby Parker, be cautious and give our team a chance to show you different options or – at the very least – examine your glasses for accuracy.
The effectiveness of smart glasses totally relies on information we just don’t know yet. From past experiences, we know a lot of online retailers tend to cut corners with lenses, providing a cheap and inferior product that can do more harm than good. However, there’s nothing really stopping future companies from learning where others have failed and providing more accuracy by working with eye care professionals.
If rumors are true, then we can safely assume Apple isn’t alone in developing smart glasses. They aren’t even the first to adopt the idea. Google’s venture into the smart glasses space debuted in 2013 with Google Glass. Though it fizzled out as a consumer product (maybe it had to do with its $1,500 pricetag!), it still exists today as an enterprise-only option. It only means that other companies will catch on and start to produce smart glasses targeted towards your everyday four-eyed individuals (like yours truly).
If we were in charge of a smart glasses company, the most effective thing to do is sell a product that can work with any lens and allow for easy installation. If a company like Apple were to sell blank lensed frames and recommend consumers to take them to their optometrist for prescription lenses, this would resolve a lot of questions highlighted above. Consumers would be able to have insurance cover their lenses just as they would any pair of replacement lenses, and know that the lenses will be accurate and effective, matching their prescription perfectly. Whether or not this is the case – only time will tell!