9 min read

Apple vs Oakley: Winning the Battle vs Winning the War

Apple vs Oakley: Winning the Battle vs Winning the War

Apple has a tough hill to climb if it wants to win the war for the most valuable real estate there may ever be: your nose. Your glasses won’t just help you to see, they’ll be your gateway into the largest paradigm shift in computing since the mobile phone.

Robert Scoble proposes that Apple will be judged against the experiences you’ve had buying glasses. And that if you want to find a benchmark, there’s no better place to look than Oakley.

Oakley is the product powerhouse and R&D arm of EssilorLuxottica, which has a €57 billion market capitalization and by some accounts sells close to a billion contact lenses and frames each year.

Take a trip to Oakley, and you’ll find that Apple, renowned for its attention to design, is up against a worthy competitor.

“Oakley hires dozens of designers and gives them rock star status. It’s one reason why its headquarters is designed that way: it screams “design is king” inside,” says Scoble.

And he makes the point that Apple won’t be able to steam-roller Oakley in the same way it was able to disrupt, say, Swatch for watches:

“Now Apple’s headquarters screams that, too, and clearly Apple won’t release a product that looks dorky, or nerdy, the way a HoloLens, Oculus Quest, Magic Leap, or Nreal do. The design, or “look” of them will be a huge Apple advantage over the tech-heavy crowd. That said, Apple isn’t chasing Oculus or Magic Leap here, it’s chasing Oakley.”

Glasses Aren’t A Product, They’re a Journey

Scoble’s larger point here isn’t about fashion. Fashion and design are only one part of a larger equation: that getting a new pair of prescription glasses isn’t easy.

And that EssilorLuxottica and Oakley have gotten really, really good at locking you in as you go through the process. I mean, just look at the list of companies that falls under their umbrella. This is just a small smattering:

  • Oakley
  • Oliver Peoples
  • Ray-Ban
  • Giorgio Armani, Polo and Prada (under license)
  • Sunglass Hut
  • LensCrafters
  • EyeMed Vision Care, the second largest vision benefits company in the United States

In other words, it’s likely that if you need glasses, you’re interacting with them at some point in your journey. And that includes your visit to the optometrist, who is highly motivated to sell some frames when you’ve finished your eye exam.

Now, this “lock-in” on the customer journey also means that you’re paying a 1,000% mark-up on eye glasses. But the lock-in is there.

Apple vs Physics

Glasses are about physics. Augmented reality glasses even more so. The balancing act you need to play when designing AR glasses is, well, mind-boggling.

(Which is why all the talk about Magic Leap being a ‘scam’ is rubbish: mostly their problem was in misjudging the physics in converting their large-scale prototype to a device that would be comfortable on your head. The technology, hardware and chips weren’t there yet to let them deliver on their hype).

There’s a reason the Hololens ‘eye box’ is so far from your head: it was a trade-off for things like Interpupillary Distance (IPD), which is different for different people. Magic Leap, instead, placed the eye box closer to your eyes, and decided they could overcome some of the trade-off by launching two different versions of their device for different IPD profiles.

In fact, there’s a whole range of things that need to be considered when designing for AR. If you try to bump the resolution of images, for example, you can also create too much heat that’s too close to your head.

Now combine this with the challenges of delivering quality eye glass lenses and frames. As Scoble point out, this includes everything from safety (will they break if you fall asleep on them) to weight (buying, say, titanium frames so they sit comfortably on the nose, even if your lenses need to be thicker because of your vision).

The Power of Light

Or take another factor: light.

There’s a trade-off in developing augmented reality devices between display brightness and how much light reaches your eye. If your glasses look more like sunglasses, the display can be brighter. But then, well, you’re wearing sunglasses.

Device makers make design decisions based on these trade-offs that are driven by physics. Magic Leap for example lets in 15% of light while Hololens lets in 40% and NReal 25%.

These decisions make some sense: Hololens is focused on industrial markets where it’s just as important to properly see the world around you as it is to see the display in your headset. Magic Leap was, instead, after time in your living room. A known enviornment.

It’s a vast simplification of the design decisions that are made, but points to a key driver: physics has limits. Light works a certain way. The more light, the less you can see of the display. And so you need to make a decision that balances these factors.

Apple Is Developing Glasses

There are two reasons Apple is teeing up a battle with Oakley:

  • The market for glasses is massive. If they can disrupt the same percentage of the eye glass market as they did watches, the Apple revenue for wearables will instantly exceed its entire revenue to-date
  • They will therefore look at the tradeoffs not just within augmented reality (“how much light do we let in so that display brightness is still acceptable”) but also against eye glasses (“I can create a better view if I partly block light coming in at the sides, but then I’ve blocked peripheral vision, which means I can’t compete with Oakley for frames that are wearable all day”)

And so I proposed that Apple will focus FIRST on making a pair of eye glasses that do beautiful things.

Scoble came up with an amazing list of things that they could do. For example, they could tap into Siri in a more intuitive and useful way. Sure it’s “augmented” but not in the rich 3D way that people imagine (based in part on drawing the wrong lessons from Magic Leap and Virtual Reality).

Among them, for example, he proposed:

  • Navigation assistance. “Hey Siri, I need some birthday balloons for a 13-year-old girl, can you show me where to buy them?” On the glasses it’ll say that Safeway has some in stock and show you a blue line for how to get there, along with a little map. “Take a left on Winchester.”
  • Homework check and assistance. The LIDAR could read my son’s math homework and look for errors. If he had a pair on, it could help him “hey Siri, what’s the square root of 64?”

These are great examples of how Apple Glass could have some amazing features without needing to project the equivalent of a high-resolution screen on your vision.

Apple and the Long Campaign

Scoble has identified the end game. We will be dissatisfied with our eye glass provider if they don’t have progressive lenses, or if I can’t wear them all day, or if they break when I’m skiing.

But one of the things which I think is often overlooked about Apple is how incremental it can be.

We tend to think of the company as one that focuses on single-shot market changers. The iPhone moment, when an entire market was upended, nearly overnight. The iPad, which made tablets a “thing”.

But Apple is also incredibly patient. They will pull even the smallest feature if it isn’t ‘ready for prime time’. And they’ve even changed their internal processes to make them less focused on big launch dates. If anything, they have become more incremental over time.

(SwiftUI, for example, I see as a shift in how interfaces are developed that will play out over a decade and will be an absolutely critical part of future “AR” experiences, which will require seamless work across devices).

And so while I don’t disagree with Robert, I think it creates a bit of a binary view: “if Apple doesn’t have these things at launch, the market may be disappointed”.

He would be right if Apple made the same mistake as Magic Leap, where expectations didn’t match the delivered product.

One such mistake would be if Apple positioned Glass as something that can be ‘for everyone, all day, every day’. In such a case, they would be bound to disappoint: it’s too hard to handle all of the optical use cases that Robert points out, let alone all of the AR ones.

But Apple may have smaller battles in mind.

Expanding Definitions

What if Apple, instead of “solving” the end-to-end experience of getting a new pair of glasses, instead takes a more measured approach?

They might start, for example, by launching glasses as an additive product, in much the same way that your Watch was mostly additive to your phone (and the apps on it).

Apple Glass could be a ‘screen extender’. It could be positioned as something that extends your iPhone, your iPad, your Apple TV. (And yes, Siri – which is a really brilliant insight).

Sure, they would be prescription ready, but “calibrated to work perfectly with other Apple products”.

OK, so it’s kind of a rough idea, I admit. And maybe it’s better to think about what Apple would AVOID:

  • They would NOT be positioned for outdoor use, other than in perhaps the very very lightest ways. The display issues with outdoor light are a tough nut to crack
  • They would avoid high-impact situations like at the gym or skiing
  • They would NOT be positioned as being worn all day, every day. Instead, they would be positioned to POP existing experiences

In the Prosser leak (which I think, as a side note, was actually just a leak of one of hundreds of prototypes), he made what I think is a rather curious claim: that Apple hasn’t figured out how to tint the lenses.

Which makes almost zero sense. AR works BETTER with tinted frames. But it MIGHT indicate that Apple is therefore more focused on indoor use cases.

I keep thinking that a really interesting set of use cases could revolve solely around how the Glasses work when you have other screens:

  • Your glasses provide screen extensions to your iPad, which has its own LiDAR and its own cameras and its own rich 3D AR.
  • Your glasses provide value-add when you’re watching Apple TV
    • When watching Apple TV, your glasses could “ping you” that theres a rich 3D wrap-around replay of a sport event which you can see on your phone or iPad (and which might explain their purchase of NextVR)
  • Your glasses might activate indoors at a Starbucks where your reward points might appear, and you can voice activate payment for your coffee from your phone

Extending the Line

In this approach, Apple would be slow and incremental. Like Watch, the “luxury” versions can come later. The “sports” version can launch with Version 3.

This approach would mean slowly expanding into Oakley turf instead of taking it by force.

Karl Guttag proposes that the Prosser leak points to thin freeform optics instead of waveform for how images are displayed and its implications for the prescription requirements:

Then we have the comment on cost about being “plus prescription.” This immediately says that Apple’s Glasses are not going to have the large eye relief of say Hololens that would let someone wear their own glasses. The cheap but ugly way, not the “Apple way”,  would be to add prescription inserts like Nreal and Magic Leap, as examples. By process of elimination, this leaves building the prescriptions into the optics. Once again, this tends to point to thin freeform optics. Tooz, for instance, supports building the prescription into their optics, and Oorym claims they will be able to support prescription lenses.  

This would tend to suggest that Apple would need to tackle the lens-grinding part of the equation. But that doesn’t mean it ALSO needs to tackle all of the different consumer requirements for glasses (progressive lenses, use in sports, etc).

Instead, it suggests that they might start as supplemental to the current user journey: “continue to get your prescriptions from your optometrist. In fact, we’ve equipped them with new ‘Apple protocols’ and they’re going to make a bit of money from us also. Buy your Oakley glasses alongside your Apple Glass, because you’ll still need both”.

At a rumoured $500 price point, it makes sense that Apple would be additive to your ‘traditional’ glasses. But that doesn’t mean they won’t go after the $1,500 pair that Scoble buys….just NOT now.

The Campaign and the Battle

This will be a long campaign. It’s a war against physics, against the limits of miniaturization, against existing user journeys and experiences.

It will include fashion and retail, medical examinations of your eyes and what your glasses can DO.

It will also be one very large battle (or series of battles) in a much larger campaign.

It’s the campaign to influence the largest shift in computing since the mobile phone: the one where the digital and physical worlds fuse, and where everything you see and everywhere you go is now one world-scale computing platform and interface.