This has been the year of wearable technology. Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) got the party started earlier this year with the limited, invitation-only release of its Google Glass smartglasses device. Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF ) entered the fray last month with the launch of its Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch. With other major technology companies rumored to be developing their own wearable devices, the usual tech suspects are all accounted for. But outside of the tech industry is a dark horse. Despite not being a tech company, this could be one of the best positioned to benefit from this technological innovation.
Eyewear's near monopoly
It is quite likely that you have never heard of the Italian company Luxottica (NYSE: LUX ) . I bet that you have heard of its brands though: Ray-Ban, Oakley, Vogue, Persol, Oliver Peoples, and many others. Luxottica is the world's largest eyewear company. So large that many have accused the company of being a monopoly. At $1.86 billion last quarter alone, Luxottica did over seven times the gross profit of its nearest competitor. If someone is selling, buying, prescribing, insuring, or wearing a pair of glasses, Luxottica is likely involved at some stage of the process.
In addition to owning and licensing many of the world's most popular eyewear brands, Luxottica is also a dominant force in glasses retail with more than 7,000 locations around the world (including over 2,295 Sunglass Hut locations and 1,178 LensCrafters). At many of these locations, an eye doctor is on or near the premises ready to prescribe lenses for that new pair of Luxottica glasses. And with the Luxottica-owned EyeMed Vision Care, one of the largest vision health insurers in the United States, this near monopoly is complete.
First to market, first to develop
Although Google and Samsung that are getting noticed this year for their respective product launches, it was actually Luxottica that quietly beat both companies to the modern-day wearable tech market. Launched in October 2012, the Oakley Airwave is Luxottica's high-tech ski goggle that features GPS, ski slope maps, iPhone and Android smartphone connectivity, and an integrated heads-up display built into the goggles.
While the Oakley Airwave is a niche performance product for ski enthusiasts, it did demonstrate just what Luxottica is capable of in this space. For over 15 years (about as long as Google has been a company), Luxottica has been developing and patenting the display optics technology used in what is now known as smartglasses.
More than just technology
Both a medical device and jewelry for the face, glasses are a very personal product. Google certainly has the software and services expertise, but that will ultimately matter very little if Google is unable to fulfill the two main purposes of any pair of glasses (smart or otherwise): improve vision and be aesthetically pleasing.
Met with generally negative reviews, Samsung and its Galaxy Gear appear to have learned that lesson the hard way. Rather than partner with a watch company that understands what it takes to make a fashionable timepiece, Samsung instead created a rather unattractive piece of metal attached to an equally unattractive watch band (although personal tastes will vary). It certainly did not help matters that Samsung also failed to deliver on the technical side of the equation with few apps to support the new platform, phone incompatibility, and a lack of crucial functionality such as the ability to send email.
It is for these reasons that if Google and Luxottica decided to, each would make a good partner for the other company. Google has confirmed that it will make a modular version of Google Glass that can work with any prescription or sunglass frame. At the same time, Luxottica has expressed an openness as to its future plans in this space. Although both companies are capable of going it alone, a partnership between the world's largest eyewear company and the world's largest mobile OS and Internet services company would make for a formidable business arrangement.
Foolish bottom line
A $3 billion-$5 billion market today, analysts have estimated that wearable technology could soar to a $30 billion-$50 billion market opportunity within just two or three years. The obvious companies in this emerging wearable tech space are not necessarily the best ways to play it. Sometimes it can be the company that few consider that comes in to disrupt everyone else. With its portfolio of popular brands, worldwide retail dominance, strong presence in U.S. vision health insurance, and patents developed over the past 15 years, Luxottica could very well be the dark-horse company to be on the lookout for.