Amazon has begun taking pre-orders for the Echo Frames smart glasses, graduating the wearable from the Day 1 Editions pilot program with new and upgraded features. Meanwhile, the Echo Loop smart ring has flunked the program, and Amazon is ending its production and sale. The Frames and Loop were the first devices Amazon enrolled in the Day 1 Editions program after debuting in Amazon’s 2019 hardware show.
The Echo Frames essentially graft Alexa to a set of glasses. The lenses are just glass, although there is an option to switch them out for prescription lenses. The “smart” element is entirely audio, with small microphones and speakers built into the glasses that let the wearer communicate with Alexa. Wearers can activate the voice assistant by saying “Alexa” or pressing on the side of the glasses. The Frames connect by Bluetooth to Alexa app on the wearer’s smartphone and can be used to talk to Siri or Google Assistant on iOS or Android phones, respectively. The microphone can also be shut off by double-tapping on the side of the glasses. Though the new Frames look essentially the same as the first version, Amazon has expanded the color options beyond black, adding blue and tortoiseshell varieties.
The colors were just one way Amazon responded to feedback from people testing the Frames over the last year. The second iteration of Frames is supposed to last as much as 40% longer during playback and automatically turn off after three seconds when flipped and put down by the wearer, further improving battery life. When worn, the Frames can automatically adjust the volume of sounds from its speakers based on the noise level around the user, upping it when the user is in a noisy place. Wearers can set up a filter so that notifications and messages will only play from specific people and apps. The new version of the Frames can also connect the smart glasses to calendars and group messages. During the pilot, The glasses sold for $180 but now cost $250. Owners of the first version of the Frames can buy the new ones for $70, making up the price difference. The Frames start shipping on Dec. 10.
“In creating Echo Frames, we had a vision at Amazon to invent a product that would empower customers to stay connected with the world and provide access to communication, information, and entertainment no matter where they are. We wanted to build a technology that could disappear into the background and help our customers engage with people, content, and services, without distracting them from the moment,” Echo Frames director Jean Wang wrote in a blog post about the new smart glasses. “Nestled in the temples, open-ear audio directs sound toward your ears, so you can ask Alexa to make a phone call, listen to music, control your smart home, hear notifications, and more—all while keeping your ears uncovered. It’s the best of both worlds—personal audio with the magic of Alexa when you want it, while still being able to tune in to the world around you.”
Framing the Future
While the crash-and-burn of Google Glass famously set back smart glasses as a market, they are on the rise. Audio-only smart glasses that could be in direct competition to the Echo Frames are mushrooming, such as the Bose Frames, Huawei’s Eyewear II, and the Vue Lite. Smart glasses with holographic and other visual components are also beginning to spread. Google is clearly going to make another attempt after acquiring North, the makers of Focals by North smart glasses, at the end of June. North’s portfolio included many patents acquired from Intel in 2018 for the canceled Vaunt smart glasses, which the company integrated into its own product, and which Google will doubtless find useful. Facebook is supposedly working with Ray-Ban on smart glasses with AR too, and details about Apple’s plans for smart glasses with displays in the lenses leaked earlier this year.
The Loop and Frames were just two of the 16 Alexa-enabled devices Amazon showcased at the 2019 event alongside the Echo Buds earbuds, Echo Show 8 smart display, and Amazon Smart Oven, among others. The two devices acted as test subjects for Amazon’s wearable tech pipeline. The Day 1 Editions program required interested users to request the chance to buy the devices, charging them for the chance to give Amazon valuable feedback on whether to scale up their production and how to improve them for universal sales.
The Echo Loop was definitely more a bigger swing than the Echo Frames. A $180 finger ring with microphones and a tiny speaker to communicate with a voice assistant and even make phone calls doesn’t have quite as obvious a market niche as smart glasses. Though seemingly designed by Amazon as another way to get people to use the Alexa app on their smartphone, smart glasses and smartwatches probably won’t lose any customers to smart ring owners. That doesn’t mean the pilot was a mistake, according to Amazon.
“We learned a lot about how customers want to use Alexa for short, snackable content throughout the day, and we will take that with us as we continue to invent new customer experiences,” Wang wrote. “Customers who purchased Echo Loop will continue to receive updates and support, and can use their devices as they do today.”
Continuing support for the Loop means Amazon will continue to gather data, always a consideration for the company. Loop owners who like the ring will be pleased, even if they hate the ring. Cutting out sales and manufacturing makes the Loop a limited edition device, yet one that’s still functional. A quick check on eBay has the Loop selling for at least $250, more for unopened boxes.