Japanese Eyewear Giants Enlist to Save Humanity From Google Glass

America laughed when Professor Isao Echizen unveiled his goofy-looking "privacy goggles" last year. But Isao did not get discouraged — and now allies within Japan's top eyewear firms have joined forces with Isao to develop glamorous frames that can beat facial recognition software. Google Glass, a challenger appears!

As reported in the June issue of your go-to high-end gadget bible, National Institute of Informatics Today, Japanese eyewear manufactures from Sabae City in Fukui Prefecture have teamed up with Isao Echizen's Content Security Lab and are "seeking launch of a prototype by year's end."

Sabae City produces over 90 percent of Japan's eyewear. It's sort of a company town devoted to making eyeglasses and sunglasses, nestled between Japan's western mountains and the coastline. In the 1980s, Sabae designers were the first to develop titanium frames, resolving a serious, longstanding allergy issue with nickel-alloy frames. Their titanium spectacles could reasonably be described as the last non-stupid technical advancement in the world of prescription glasses.

What else you got? Transitions® Lenses? Ha, ha. Very funny. Warby Parker's "Netflix of Hipster Frames"? No. Anti-reflective coatings were a German military secret perfected in the early days of WWII.

So there's a sense of poetic justice in Sabae manufacturers coming to rescue the human race from that, recently finalized, deeply unholy alliance between Google — with its volunteer surveillance state of Glassholes — and Luxottica — Milan's happily monopolistic global eyewear cartel.

Japanese Eyewear Giants Enlist to Save Humanity From Google Glass

Overweened, perhaps, by the shock and awe of Apple's WWDC product launches, you'd think some sectors of the tech press had never been to a lab before, from the way they reacted in 2013 to Dr. Isao Echizen's first two prototype "privacy goggles." Even the normally reserved voice of the BBC made a point of saying that "the glasses are not necessarily high fashion." Still, they were technical innovations, worth serious attention.

The first made use of the fact that many digital cameras pick up near-infrared light just out of our visible spectrum. The frames strategically placed near-infrared LEDs, projecting invisible light from key points around the eyes and the bridge of the nose: the areas that facial recognition software uses to identify people. The fact that the light was outside of the visible range ensured that it wouldn't obstruct communication, by being just incredibly annoying. It wasn't a completely original idea, but there was something admirable about Dr. Echizen's dedication to seeing a cost-effective consumer solution to this privacy issue.

The second version hoped to be more disposable, and less energy intensive, by obscuring those key regions of the face with a reflective mesh. It's this second iteration that Echizen and his partners in Sabae hope to put on the market against Google's luxury-grade, Google Glass frames — produced by Luxottica, but with more glitzy, disctracting names like Diane von Furstenberg attached.

That's the thing about Luxottica. The Italian multinational enjoys an ironclad control of design and retail for about 80 percent of the global market; they manufacture just about every fashionable brand of frames you can think of, Ray Ban, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Prada, Disney, Burberry, Tom Ford.

If you have not already, make time to watch their CEO, Andrea Guerra, smugly shrug off any qualms about Luxottica's business model to 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl. It is a delightful black comedy. They took Ray Bans off the market for a whole year just to jack up the price!

That's who Professor Isao Echizen and his Sabae confederates are up against: a near-monopoly advertising agency masquerading as an internet search company in a "strategic partnership" with a near-monopoly in eyeglass frames, that doesn't even do prescription lenses, and yet topped 1.2 billion Euros in gross profit last year. If you were left wondering why your local LensCrafters or Pearle suddenly became stocked with noxiously overpriced frames adorned with the brand iconography of all the major haute couture clothing labels, the answer is Luxottica. Vaffanculo, Luxottica! stronzi ricchi stupidi Luxottica!

As Professor Isao Echizen told his university's magazine, NII Today, in that June issue:

I want people to think about what they can do to protect their privacy against the fact that their own information will spread in the cyberspace [sic, but also cute] and could be used for a commercial purpose. For example, when Carnegie Mellon University experimented on whether those who agreed to have their picture taken anonymously could be identified based on their head shot by checking with Facebook, one-third of the test subjects were identified, and even the personal interests and social security number of some test subjects were revealed. Times when privacy is exposed only by a head shot have already arrived. [emphasis mine]

It's that simple.

All the old differences, between eyeglass-wearers and contact lens-wearers, circular existential vagaries about authenticity and vintage frames, none of it matters anymore. There is only one fault line of consequence, today, in the world of prescription eyewear.

It's between us and the machines.

[animated GIF pulled from DigInfo TV via Limor Fried; that's Dr. Echizen, by the way at left, in the animated GIF; Sabae billboard via Nippon]

Email matthew.phelan@gawker.com, pgp public key, to contact the author of this post.