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Smart Glasses Prove New Focus for Reinvigorated Optical Industry

Their fusion of fashion and technology has seen smart glasses taking point in reshaping the optical industry, with Asia's many early adopters only too keen to sample the latest models and innovations at the recent Hong Kong Optical Fair.

Photo: Smart eyewear courtesy of Rochester Optical.
Smart eyewear courtesy of Rochester Optical.
Photo: Smart eyewear courtesy of Rochester Optical.
Smart eyewear courtesy of Rochester Optical.

The optical and glasses industry is currently undergoing something of a rejuvenation and a consequent sales boost. This is down, at least in part, to the emergence of the smart glasses sector. Essentially computers that add information and augment visual feeds, they have an eminently futuristic vibe. At the 22nd Hong Kong Optical Fair, the crush around the Rochester Optical stand – one of the many highlighting the new technology – clearly showed that future is now a present reality.

Underlining this renaissance, the show, organised in conjunction with the Hong Kong Optical Manufacturers Association, welcomed a record 714 exhibitors, 508 of them from some 29 overseas territories. It also attracted 14,079 buyers, including representatives from 99 different geographical markets – a 1% increase on the previous year. The big gains came from the emerging markets – notably Vietnam, Poland and India – but the developed countries also had an enhanced presence.

While the "eyewear parades" of sashaying models in the Brand Name Gallery were naturally front-of-house, several high-profile international brands also competed for attention with their bids to offer the most fashionable frames of 2015. As well as the consumer-facing offerings, a number of the fair's products zones highlighted a variety of optometric instruments and machines designed to shape lenses or create frames. Several high-profile conferences and forums also provided a keen insight into the current state of the sector.

It's fair to say that the main focus, however, was indisputably on smart glasses and the merging of technology and fashion they represent. While Google has made the biggest splash in the wearable device market to date, a number of other major companies – notably Samsung, Lenovo and Sony – have also nurtured their own entrants to the sector. Apple has also registered patents for its own take on smart eyewear, lured by the prospects of the market for such smart devices being worth an estimated US$50 billion by 2019.

Rochester Optical, a New York-based frame and optics manufacturer, is one of the companies now leading this technological charge. The manufacturer behind the Google Glass Smart Frames, it is now collaborating with Simon Chim, a Hong Kong-based designer, on the development of prescription eyeglass frames for the Vuzix M100. This is an Android-based wearable computer that comes enhanced with a monocular display and a range of recording features.

Rochester Optical's Hong Kong connection is strong – Patrick Ho, its Chief Executive and President, was raised in the city. He bought Rochester Optical in the 1990s, and transformed the company from a military contractor (night vision, 3D and arming devices) into a major retailer. Ho realised, earlier than most, that wearable computers had strict optical requirements. As a leader in the field, his company now provides its know-how to Google Glass, Lenovo and Epson.

Evaluating the interest at this year's Optical Fair, Ho said: "It has wildly exceeded my expectations. It's like being a headliner. Asians are so interested in technology, especially video technology. There were a lot of good questions, considerable interest and a large number of 'when can we buy?' queries. Buyers came to test the smart-glasses water and their learning curve was very steep. When we explain here, people understand. It's a quicker take-up process than Europe or the US."

Clearly an evangelist for smart glasses, Ho predicted that the next seven to 10 years would see mass adoption of the technology. He compared the current situation to that of early cell phones, when many of the initial units were unwieldy and expensive.

He said: "Mass adoption is a three-legged stool. First there is the device itself, then the software (including apps) and then the optical side. One out of two adults requires prescription glasses, so at least half will require this solution."

According to Ho, the potential applications for smart eyewear are endless, while he described augmented reality as "where you can see everything, but no one else knows what you're looking at". He believes being able to take photographs, share information, make calls or surf the net just by blinking will "substantially enhance the quality of life". He also said such technology could come to the assistance of the less fortunate, such as quadriplegics, who could use the glasses to make voice or eye commands and become connected online.

Tim Moore, Rochester Optical's Director of Wearable Technology, described the possibilities opened up by digital vision as "transformative". He sees applications across a wide variety of commercial situations, including reporters being able to conduct and transmit interviews in real-time just by wearing a pair of smart glasses. He believes the mass adoption of smart eyewear is likely to begin in Asia, where the take up of new technology is notably quicker.

While wearable technology was creating a buzz, fashion wasn't far behind. This was clearly demonstrated by a series of eyewear parades by the winners of the 16th Hong Kong Eyewear Design Competition. Taking retro as its theme, this particular element of the programme saw a series of skinny, bikini-clad models strutting down the catwalk in high heels and glasses.

Behind the glamour, though, was a hard-headed promotional campaign aimed at maintaining Hong Kong's position in the optical industry. Significantly, the city exported HK$9.6 billion of optical products over the first eight months of 2014, while its domestic market remained strong.

Photo: Eye-catching optical modelling.
Eye-catching optical modelling.
Photo: Eye-catching optical modelling.
Eye-catching optical modelling.
Photo: Eye-catching optical models.
Eye-catching optical models.
Photo: Eye-catching optical models.
Eye-catching optical models.

Taking a similar approach, models were ever present at the Tommy Fashion Sunglasses Trading booth, with the company heavily promoting its FashionTv eyewear collection. Founded in 2002, Dubai-based Tommy Fashion produces sunglasses, frames and contact lenses. It is now a major brand in the Middle East and North Africa, with the Optical Fair proving the perfect launch pad for its bid to pursue sales in both Asia and the West. Its collaboration with Paris-based FashionTv, producers of fashion programming, featured wall-to-wall glamour and clearly embodied its slogan – "Glasses today are no longer worn to see – but to be seen".

According to Elie Bou Boutros. Tommy Fashion's  Chief Executive, the company now hopes to increase its visibility in Asia, in particular, with the reaction to date having proved overwhelmingly positive. This has seen the company sign major deals for distribution in Hong Kong, India and a number of other emerging Asian countries.

The importance of fashion and branding when it comes to glasses cannot be overemphasised. Understandably, then, there were more than 200 international labels showing off their wares in the Brand Name Gallery. These included Converse from the US, Hachill from Hong Kong and Germany's ic! Berlin. The Trend Avenue in Hall 3B also featured a number of other cutting-edge eyewear designs.

Loupe is a newcomer to the sector and one that aims to capitalise on its Italian design DNA. Representing the company, Caterina Longo said its designs and production were "entirely handmade in Italy". This was in order to distinguish its glasses from the "traditional market", which goes global in terms of sourcing materials and ideas. She said the company's founders – engineer Domenico Cartolano and architect John Ferrari – share a passion for seeing better and believe glasses should "dress up your personality".

She said: "There are still people who appreciate art and craft and we have had good feedback. We think Italian design is valued all around the world, so we focus on this. We already have agents in Paris, Hong Kong, Munich and New York, even though we are only one-year-old."

With so much optical opulence on offer, it was fortunate there were a number of experts on hand to explain the fashion diktats of the eyewear world through a series of daily seminars. One standout panel here was billed as "A Preview of 2015 Trends – A European Optical Fashion Tour". This featured three speakers, led by Robert Morris of William Morris' London.

According to Morris, London, as a true fashion capital, changed styles quickly and was able to export them around the world, largely thanks to the city's cachet as a trendsetter. For men, aviators, the grad look and thicker shapes were now in, while brave and bold women were adopting cat's eye frames, with a swirling sweep upward where the arms join the frame.

Meanwhile, Peter Biller, the Chief Designer of Germany's Freddie Wood eyewear emphasised the enduring appeal of natural products, especially for today's more environmentally-aware consumers. He said iron, wood and horn had been used as far back as 700 years ago to make glasses, and they remained just as relevant today. Though Biller admitted many new materials can be shaped in a way natural products cannot, this had not prevented the company from adding touches of colour to keep up with ever-fluid contemporary tastes.

The constancy of change was a theme taken-up by Stephanie De Long, the editor-in-chief of the US-based Eyecare Business Magazine. Speaking at The Must-Haves in a Pair of Spectacles Today and Selection Techniques forum, she said changing demographics and technology were the key determinants in eyewear manufacture. In the US, she said, the baby boomer market had peaked in terms of sales, while the second most significant group was now the Millennials – those in the 18-34 years age range.

These changes, she maintained, were reflected in consumer buying behaviour. For instance, three-quarters of the millennials undertake research online before making a purchase. She said: "The offline store now has to mirror the online. While the majority of people still prefer to make purchases at physical stores, this is slowly changing as the number of prescription glasses bought online has risen from 4% to 27%.

"As for colours, while radiant purple was hot for a while in 2014", the 2015 palette is likely to be royal blue, orange/red and dark aluminium or green/yellow."

It's not all glamour with glasses, however. This aspect of the industry was highlighted by Nigel Beasley and Frank Bedaux, two UK-based buyers. They were in Hong Kong on the lookout for anti-scratch coatings that could be adapted for mobile phone solutions, in particular dummy phones – the type used in-store as a demo of the real thing. Expanding on their own purchase criteria, Beasley said: "Fashion changes, but the fundamental elements remain the same. If you catch the wave and come up with new products, you can surf the wave far longer."

Another buyer, Eduardo Suello of Philippines-based Jobson Optics, noted that exhibitors were now far more focussed on the emerging markets than ever before. He said the Philippines market was of interest to many major foreign brands, especially those geared toward higher income consumers. He also saw prospects for those manufacturers aiming for the mass market, saying: "In Asia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and China are all producing good product. It's just a matter of choosing your friends – though an attractive price-point helps too."

Elsewhere there were demonstrations of lenses, print and acetate frame-producing machines, as well as a panoply of optical instruments on offer. In terms of the eyewear industry, the Hong Kong Optical Fair retained its unique focus and its farsighted look at looming developments.

Photo: Frame and fortune: A touch of glass at the Optical Fair.
Frame and fortune: A touch of glass at the Optical Fair.
Photo: Frame and fortune: A touch of glass at the Optical Fair.
Frame and fortune: A touch of glass at the Optical Fair.

The HKTDC Hong Kong Optical Fair 2014 was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 5-7 November 2014.

Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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