(NASDAQ:GOOG) cutting-edge and controversial smart glasses are getting further publicity -- and further mainstream legitimization -- from one of the most traditional sectors of the economy: health care.
Vision-care giant VSP announced recently that it will partially subsidize the costs of prescription versions of Google Glass. Customers will be reimbursed for frames and lenses per the allowances outlined in their plans. This announcement by VSP comes in conjunction with an announcement from Google that Glass will now be available in four different frame styles
, each of which will be available in five different colors. Until now, Glass has only been available in a single frame style that was not prescription-ready.
The full retail cost of the lightweight titanium frames will be $225. The computing components of Glass are $1,500 more -- and VSP will not offer any coverage for those. The new Glass frames will go on sale to the general public at the end of this year. At the moment, Glass is only available to a select group of volunteers Google calls "explorers
Smart Glass, Savvy Insurer
VSP is the nation's biggest eye-care insurer, covering 64 million people - a full 20% of those with vision coverage. Getting VSP to subsidize Glass is a major coup for Google.
Glass still has obstacles to overcome, such as privacy advocates expressing concern over wearers' ability to snap photos of whatever they're looking at with a simple spoken command
. But coverage by a major insurer gives Glass an implicit stamp of approval it didn't previously have, potentially making those suspicious of wearable devices more likely to take the plunge, and those outright opposed to Glass more willing to give it second chance. Add to that the simple fact that Glass frames and lenses will be discounted and you have the potential for significantly higher sales than the typical consumer technology sales model.
Treating Glass like a regular pair of prescription glasses is also a savvy move for VSP. Glass is high tech and high profile. Subsidizing it makes the company look more cutting edge, more hip, more cool. When was the last time anyone thought of a health care provider as cool? This pioneering play on VSP's part may entice people to actively seek the company out as their vision care provider.
"We know our 64 million members are seeing and hearing about Google Glass and how it will affect their lives and vision," VSP Vision Care's president Jim McGrann said on the decision to cover Glass, "so we are really focusing on the eye health management perspective." And where there's one health care company providing coverage for smart glasses, of any make, expect others to shortly follow.
Given the country's obsession with technology, Google Glass was likely to take off eventually anyway. With the explicit backing of one-fifth of the vision care insurance system, expect an even faster rise. For many debating the desirability of wearable technology, Google Glass might be just what the doctor ordered.