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Can Sony's Smartglasses Succeed Where Google Glass Failed?

By Leo Sun – Feb 26, 2015 at 11:45AM

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Sony plans to expand into smartglasses even after Google Glass failed. Is this the wrong play at the wrong time?

Google (GOOG 3.28%) (GOOGL 3.13%) sent Glass back to the drawing board in January, but Sony (SONY 3.29%) still plans to sell its own Android-compatible smartglasses -- known as SmartEyeglass -- to developers for $840 in early March.

SmartEyeglass is much cheaper than Glass, which cost early adopters $1,500, but it also has less impressive specs. SmartEyeglass only displays low-resolution monochrome images and text, compared to Glass' color display. SmartEyeglass also requires a wired controller that houses the microphone, speakers, and NFC module. Glass, on the other hand, was a completely hands-free experience operated via voice controls and head movements. SmartEyeglass is equipped with a 3-megapixel camera, which is concealed in its bulky 77 gram frame. By comparison, Glass had a protruding 5-megapixel camera but the device only weighed 43 grams.

Sony's SmartEyeglass. Source: Sony.

Sony plans to promote SmartEyeglass' industrial applications first, then launch the device commercially in 2016. On its website, Sony suggests SmartEyeglass can be used to inform security guards about threats, or let construction workers view schematics remotely.

This is different from Google's strategy of first courting mainstream consumers with its "Explorer" program, but will Sony's smartglass efforts fare any better than Google Glass?

Wrong product, wrong time
In my opinion, SmartEyeglass will fail for three simple reasons: Sony lacks Google's mobile clout with developers, the wired controls represent a big step backwards, and its bulky frame arguably makes Glass look fashionable.

Sony will court developers first, but it's unlikely many will be eager to create smartglass apps after being burned by Google's misguided Glass experiment. Glass still has a paltry library of around 100 apps, but major ones like Twitter (TWTR -2.96%) are now missing. If Google has that much trouble winning over developers, there's no reason to expect Sony to fare any better.

Sony also lacks the enterprise muscle to make SmartEyeglass a true "industrial" device. Google tried to market Glass to businesses with its "Glass at Work" partnerships, but it has only signed on 10 partners so far. Meanwhile, Microsoft's (MSFT 3.37%) prototype HoloLens -- a combination virtual and augmented reality headset -- impressed tech enthusiasts in January with virtual Skype calls, remote assistance, and holographic games of tabletop Minecraft.

Microsoft's HoloLens. Source: Microsoft.

Since Microsoft is already an 800-pound gorilla in enterprise, HoloLens -- not SmartEyeglass or Glass -- could be the game-changing AR device that clearly defines that market.

Sony's mobile blunders
SmartEyeglass is just another one of Sony's misguided efforts to keep its mobile and wearable devices relevant.

The company has already given up on gaining market share with its Xperia smartphones -- which account for less than 2% of the global market -- and opted to sell fewer phones at higher prices. Its smart watches have been completely overshadowed by Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF), which controlled 71% of the fledgling market at the beginning of last year, and Apple (AAPL 3.08%), which will release its first smart watch in April.

Just as with smartphones, Sony lacks a clear vision for its smart watches. It added a stand-alone Walkman MP3 player to the SmartWatch 3, but it felt superfluous because the watch still needed to be paired to a smartphone. Sony let users make calls from the wrist with SmartBand Talk, but the feature felt similarly pointless considering Bluetooth headsets serve the same purpose.

Sony's SmartWear smart watches. Source: Sony.

With smartglasses, Sony is already experimenting with other different designs like the detachable SmartEyeglass Attach, but it feels like Sony is simply throwing random darts and hoping one of these wild mobile efforts sticks to the board.

Not the lifeline Sony needs
If SmartEyeglass flops, it won't matter much to Sony financially. But if it somehow succeeds, research company EON Reality expects the entire augmented reality market to be worth only $660 million by 2018 -- a drop in the pond for Sony, which reported $75.4 billion in revenues in 2014.

Nonetheless, investors should keep an eye on Sony's SmartEyeglass, smartphone, and wearables efforts, since they will define the future of its mobile division, which accounted for 18% of Sony's revenue and 10% of its operating income last quarter. If Sony truly wants that division to flourish, it really shouldn't launch half-baked devices like SmartEyeglass to wastefully follow over-hyped trends.

Leo Sun owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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