Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Chris, tell us a bit more about yourself and your projects so far.
First I would like to thank you for this interview. I’ll start with a boilerplate business bio, and we can take it from there…
I’m a consultant market analyst on smart glasses and near-eye optics, having come from a career background in marketing and advertising—spending more than fifteen years in the New York City advertising industry, servicing some of the world’s most recognized brands—including award winning campaigns for Intel B2B and Nikon professional cameras—I then used my experience on technology accounts to pivot into tech event organizing and eventually wearable-tech startups, including Executive Creative Director at Telepathy, an early Tokyo based venture backed competitor to Google Glass. Prior to studying architecture at Pratt Institute in New York, I studied the contemporary cultural anthropology of humans and technology in an honors independent study at the University of Memphis. I have spoken on augmented reality at NASA JPL, SXSW, Swissnex @ New York Fashion Week, MIT Media Lab, and other venues; and have been quoted in the press by Mashable, Venture Beat, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. I sporadically write at my blog GigantiCo, and have been published by the industry leading AR/VR tech publication, UploadVR. I works with startups, investors, and corporate clients as an expert on the augmented reality, smart glasses and near-eye optics markets.
I’m talking to you today because I have a new paper out called Fashion Eye-Frames, Near-Eye Optics, and the Emerging Consumer Smart glasses Market. I’ve also included—for a limited time—a 25% off discount code for the readers and membership of Women of Wearables: WoW25 [Link: http://bit.ly/Wow-Smartglasses]
There are many papers that cover the smart glasses market. A few of those also focus on the consumer market. None cover the market as this paper does. Most focus on things like market growth and revenue projections. Like many nascent industries, these kind of projections have marginal reliability, and it is my experience that new markets grow not just through a combination of incremental and breakthrough technological advancements, but also through pivotal social inflection points and convergences.
I believe we are fast approaching such a convergence driven inflection point, and I believe that—if marketers and product managers are smart—the women’s market will be placed front-and-center in smart glasses' consumer adoption. I’ll talk more about this below.
What makes my report most unique in the research marketplace is that I cover two industries in parallel: The consumer smart glasses industry (and the core technologies enabling it), as well as the fashion eye-frames industry. I explore the business opportunities that are being created by this moment of convergence, and often in exceptional detail, the timelines, contracts, and individual personalities that are playing out: from the Parisian fashion conglomerates; to the Italian eye-frames manufacturers; to the leading optical engineering companies that span from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, Canada, Israel and beyond.
Completely aside from the valuable market data included, the story that weaves through is fascinating. Smart glasses will be disrupting across so many vectors, and nobody else has explored these market intersections.
I should also point out that even the highly technical chapters in the report are written to make them accessible to both engineers and non-technical business professional alike.
The reader will come away with a broad scope understanding of what is taking place across both the smart glasses and fashion eye-frames industries, with opportunities for disruption and convergence.
What was your biggest obstacle?
The report is almost 250 pages, so wrapping my arms around all of the content was a task unto itself. Further, smart glasses, even more so than smartphones, involve not a single technology, but rather the convergence of many different technologies. Though the focus—as the title implies—is on near-eye optics, related core technologies are covered. Most of these companies can be quite secretive, and the research involves a combination of publicly available yet obscure trade coverage, together with personal relationships, and reading patent filings (as well as tea-leaves), and assembling all of that into a narrative that shows the full picture.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
Thank you for inquiring about my personal journey—at the risk of going off message, I’m going to cover some ground here. I’ve worked many “jobs.” I know the word “job” is a denigrated term, and I therefore use it advisedly.
I started my career in New York as a Disney Illustrator. As an art school drop-out I had learned Adobe Illustrator in the late 80s, and by the time I arrive in New York City in the mid-90s I had about seven years of experience with the software. That’s perhaps nothing noteworthy today, but at that time it was virtually unheard of. Disney was just beginning to digitize, and did not yet require certification for vector illustrators, as long as one worked off of the blue-lines of a Disney certified penciler. This enabled me to step through a loophole into a role I could not even be hired for today. I parlayed my Mickey Mouse job into a role as an in-house technical illustrator at Morgan Stanley. I also learned Photoshop, and worked double shifts—technical illustrator at Morgan Stanley by day, and photo-retoucher at Bozell Advertising by night—I put in a lot of 70 to 80 hour weeks.
See, I grew up the son of a single mother, in the south. When I arrived in New York City in my 20s, I had not completed a college degree, and had no business relations of any kind. I went from crashing on sofas to making enough money to afford a place of my own in Manhattan, in about a year.
Hustle and hard work created opportunity.
While at Morgan Stanley, I won an internal design competition for the interface to the company’s first intranet. I took my one “digital” interface piece up the street, literally walking a few blocks up Broadway on my lunch break, to a little boutique shop called TouchScreen Media Group. Having been co-founded by a woman who was a former IBM project manager, they hence did a lot of contract work for IBM. Being hired into the role of Art Director for the launch of IBM’s first "e-Business" website, was a lucky break. I was able to leverage that into more Sr. creative roles on various technology accounts including Philllips Electronics, Intel, and eventually lead digital creative for the Worldcom business. While today Worldcom is most known for having been the largest bankruptcy in history, at the time it was ranked second largest online B2B media-buy (after IBM), and one of the largest technology accounts in the world.
Worldcom went under in tandem with the dot-com bubble bursting, and it was also just a few months after 9/11. By a matter of coincidence, my then wife and I were newlyweds, having recently held our wedding at Windows on the World, on the top floor of the World Trade Center, less than a year before. Unemployed, I used the… um, "opportunity," to return to school and study architecture at Pratt. I was pursuing a career pivot when the economy began to recover and accepted a position back in the advertising world, working at Ogilvy, then one of the industry’s most prestigious firms.
I’d like to pause my story here for a second.
I’ve delved into this kind of minutia to make a point—my path has been long and winding. I even detoured for a short time to pursue that architecture path, before taking the Ogilvy position, but this story could get quite long, so I’m editing for brevity. Many people imagine a linear path where each year they “move up,” and for some perhaps this is the case, but more often than not—especially in the economic roller-coaster of the past two decades—success looks like a lot of mountains and valley.
It was while at Ogilvy that I started my blog GigantiCo. Looking back to my time at Memphis State so many years before, when studying humanity's relationship with technology, I had first taken an interest in virtual reality. That was in the early 90s, VR 1.0 era. By 2006 I was unhappy in advertising and started the blog as an outlet to channel my other interests. It quickly narrowed to covering VR / AR, smart glasses and wearable tech. This was my passion.
It was a nascent industry at the time, so founders and inventors in the space were more accessible. The blog led to introductions, and I began doing AR / VR Meetup groups, which then led to small speaking opportunities. I was also an early TEDx licensee, establishing TEDxSiliconAlley in New York—the 2012 event was one of the largest non-university affiliated TEDx events in the world, headlined by Ray Kurzweil, and an opening keynote by Steve Job’s ad man, Ken Segall.
It was also at this time that I got involved with an event in Santa Clara called ARE (since re-branded as AWE, or Augmented World Expo, the world's largest augmented reality business event). At ARE I met a Japanese entrepreneur named Takahito Iguchi (Taka), who had won TechCrunch Disrupt 2008 Tokyo with the world's first mobile AR app, Sekai Camera. When it came time to launch his next startup, a smart glasses company called Telepathy, he approached me to head up his marketing team. As employee #6, and the first non-Japanese team member, I succeeded in securing substantial earned media in all the major US technology outlets, a double page spread in WIRED, and a feature video on Cnet… all before we had raised any money. Taka is an exceptional pitch man. I was responsible for marketing strategy, PR, and all English-language pitch materials. In six months the team successfully closed a $5M Series A.
Like many startups, we had our ups and downs, and our moment as media darlings—the little upstart taking on Google Glass—was brief… but I learned a great deal.
Our key feature was the social sharing of photos and ten-second video clips, a use case near identical to Snap Spectacles today. We even had Snapchat integration.
My market research showed that the social sharing of photo and videos was dominated by women. While some photo platforms like Instagram only had a small majority of women users at 53%, others like Snapchat had 70%, and Pinterest a staggering 72% of users were women. Over on Facebook, two-thirds of all photos and videos were uploaded by women.
If our glasses were going to be focused on a photo-sharing use case, I pitched internally that we needed to design our product for women as the primary user. This created a lot of push-back. Most of the team favored a target euphemistically referred to as the “white male geek, early adopter.” An outside marketing consultant was brought in to get an alternate POV. Ultimately a divergence of opinion emerged around our product direction. I departed the company, joined shortly thereafter by the former Telepathy VP of Engineering—a veteran of IDEO, and Stanford alumni named Craig Janik—and we began pursuing women’s wearable tech products.
Are you supporter of #WomenInTech movement?
Yes, I am. I was effectively raised by a single mother, and an older sister. I did not one day come upon an epiphany that women are whole human beings, worthy of respect, so much as I spent most of my youth as the only man, in a house full of women, will an instilled respect for women.
When I built my first team, as creative lead on Worldcom, at one point my sr. developer, project manager, and production artist were all women. Candidly, I didn’t think a great deal of it at the time, until other people began pointing it out as some kind of anomaly.
In 2011, I held my first gender-balanced TEDx event, hosted at GREY Advertising, years ahead of the trend. One of those speakers was Nicole Tricoukes, at the time she was the product lead on Kopin’s Golden-i, the bleeding edge enterprise smart glasses headset of their day. She went on to become one of my advisers. I’ve always considered myself a natural ally of women in the tech industry.
How does this apply to the project you are currently working on?
In addition to my marketing observations around woman as the primary market for a photo and video sharing use case, I extended those observations across other wearables applications.
Given the “purse problem”—men generally carry the smartphone in the pocket, where women typically carry their phone in their purse—women are the natural market for push notifications. How often have you missed a call because your phone was in your purse? Conversely, how many times have you walked about, phone in hand, because you didn’t want to miss and important call?
Women are already the primary users of health tracker wearable devices, with FitBit reporting 63% of their revenue coming from women.
Women could/should be the first demographic targeted for consumer smart glasses for another even more practical reason explored in the paper: form factor. The top selling men’s eye-frames are all wire-frames. There is no place to hide electronics in wire-frame glasses. The top selling women’s sunglasses, however, are dominated by Jackie O inspired large frames, with ample space to hide electronics.
I’ve been making the case—against many skeptics—that the most successful go to market for consumer smart glasses with be a women-first product.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
As near-eye optics and sensor technology miniaturize, most user interface elements will migrate to the eye.
Who are your 3 inspirational people / businesses in wearable tech?
For myself, Anouk Wipprecht is probably the most inspiring person in wearable technology. I’ve covered her work extensively on my own blog, and she’s also a delightful human being. Jonathan Waldern of DigiLens has been at the forefront of VR / AR and near-eye optics for decades. All the way back in the 80s he founded his first VR startup that became Virtuality—the largest venture backed VR gaming company of the 90s VR 1.0 era. He more recently founded DigiLens, who remain at the bleeding edge of holographic waveguide near-eye optic display systems. I don’t know the team over at North—the Canadian based smart glasses makers whose “Focals by North” glasses just began shipping, but I’m a incredibly impressed with their execution.
I’ll also give an honorable mention to optical engineer, Kelly Peng. I do not know her personally, but her secretive startup Kura AR released a proof-of-concept demo video of their wide field-of-view display system that—if successfully brought to market—could be a game changer. She’s a new face to watch closely.
Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed, and reach your membership and audience. The WoW25 discount code [Link: http://bit.ly/Wow-Smartglasses] will be active to your readers for the next 30 days.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.