Central Ohio facility to be Google Glass hub


May 1, 2014

Central Ohio is playing a major role as Google Glass, the wearable computer, is made available to more people.

That’s because VSP, part of the vision-care group VSP Global, is planning to make its operation on the South Side near Lockbourne a major hub for adding prescription lenses to Google Glasses.

Google Glass is still at the beginning of its rollout as a consumer product, and still only for Glass Explorers — people who have been selected to test the wearable technology.

The process as it goes right now: Glass Explorers who also want to wear prescription lenses would search for a VSP Glass Preferred Provider near them (either on vsp.com or the Glass website). Northwest Eye Surgeons were the first practice in central Ohio to offer the product.

Explorers then discuss with their doctor what would be appropriate prescription lenses for their new Glass frames. Bifocals and progressive lenses are compatible with Glass, but there are limitations on the amount of correction that is compatible with Glass. The glasses are ordered, and in a few days the finished product is ready. Total time from eye exam to final fitting of Google Glass eyewear is similar to the regular fitting process.

Google Glass is a wearable computer that has a camera and display screen above the right eye of a user. By using voice commands, a user can go online to surf the Web, read email, take photos or shoot videos.

While Google has not said how many Google Glass units are in use, recent estimates peg it at slightly more than 10,000.

Analysts say that while the full financial benefits of the partnership with Google are still to be seen, “the market will grow substantially over the next five years, and that could pay off for VSP,” said Dan Shust, vice president of innovation at the Columbus-based marketing firm Resource.

“I do believe it is a strategically smart move to get involved with aspects of wearable computing at this very early stage,” Shust said.

The business relationship with Google Glass is, in the view of VSP, a milestone for the company.

“Our products are taking off,” said Swen Carlson, vice president of central region lab operations for VSP.

“We don’t have a big cycle of selling like other companies. When we opened here in 2003, we had 33 people. Now, we have 250. And we’ve got a call center up by Easton. We’re growing in both locations. We’re always hiring. By the year end, we’ll have nearly 500 people.

VSP’s range of operations is one of the reasons Google chose the vision-care company as a partner, along with the fact that “we’re Google’s vision-care provider for their own employees,” Carlson said.

Google said in a statement that after numerous requests for prescription versions of Google Glass came from Explorers, Google chose its vision-care partner of 15 years, VSP, to take the next step in developing the eyewear.

“Our partner, VSP, will be continuously training and bringing (eye-care professionals) onboard to help fit Explorers in major cities,” Google said. “While we don’t go into specific numbers, we’v e had trainings already in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and we’ll continue to expand on that in the months ahead.”

In January, Google began testing with VSP to make titanium frames for prescription wearers that would include the Glass computer gear.

“We’re collaborating with next-generation frames,” Carlson said. “We’re also working on the front end, at stores that will be fitting people.”

Only the prescription lenses and frames will be covered under VSP insurance, not the Google Glass technology. Google Glass alone costs $1,500 per unit.

At the Columbus VSP facility, Brad Garrison, the director of operations, walked through the manufacturing portion of the building, pointing out a rack of grinding equipment that is now something of an artifact.

Using more-modern technology, the plant now typically ships 2,500 pairs of regular glasses a day.

“We have the newest technologies in this plant,” Garrison said. “We have a couple different generations of technology here. Instead of just grinding, we’re using computer-controlled design and manufacturing equipment that can handle any shape for any activity — bike riders, computer users, you name it.”

Or Google Glass.