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January 28, 2014

Can fancy frames make Google Glass go mainstream?

Google has announced a major update to its Glass headset, and it has nothing to do with its technology.

In a release Tuesday, the tech giant said that its glasses with head-mounted displays are getting four new options for frames that support prescription lenses and two new shapes for detachable sunglasses.

"This marks the next phase in the evolution of Glass as we move towards a wider consumer launch later in 2014," the company said in a list of frequently asked questions.

Google is certainly getting its ducks in a row before that much-anticipated consumer launch. And it's likely hoping that the addition of fun, hipster-ish frames will help it overcome one of the greatest obstacles facing Glass and, quite frankly, a lot of new wearable technology devices: It doesn't look so cool when you're wearing it.

In fact, it looks pretty uncool.

"Saturday Night Live" even skewered Glass users with a "Weekend Update" segment. Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch has the tendency to overwhelm the wrist of any wearer who dons its 1.63-inch screen. And while fitness wristbands have essentially defined the wearables market, similar devices that wrap around the head, sweatband style, are not nearly as stylishly appealing.

To get Glass onto the face of the average tech user and make the devices as ubiquitous as the smartphone — or, at least, the bluetooth headset? — Google has had to pour a lot of energy into making them wearable. The Glass designers were the creative minds behind the new frames, but it's no big stretch to think that fashion designers will get in on the act, as well, especially considering Glass's turn on the catwalk at Fashion Week in 2012.

Frames aside, adding more choices for prescription lenses is a smart move, since people who are already accustomed to wearing glasses won't have to leap too far to get used to wearing Glass. The firm also announced that it's working in partnership with VSP Vision to give some users a reimbursement on their Glass frames under their current insurance coverage.

That partnership also gets to the heart of the second thorny problem facing Glass: cost. Google charged its test group, called Explorers, $1,500 each to get their hands on the new devices. Analysts have said they expect those costs to come down closer to earth for the consumer launch. But there's still an obvious question about how much consumers will be willing to pay for what is still essentially an accessory for their smartphones, no matter how interesting it is.

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