CNN —  

First released to the general public last year, Echo Frames are smart glasses in a traditional-looking form. No wild lenses like on Snapchat Spectacles or a mini projector like on Google Glass. In our review last December, we found that Echo Frames did a good job showing the futuristic prospect of having Alexa at our beck and call whenever or wherever. At $250, though, they weren’t the cheapest. Especially with Warby Parker offering frames and lenses for $100.

Now Amazon has three new lenses that can be paired with Echo Frames: blue-light and two sunglass lenses. To discuss this rollout along with how Echo Frames came to be, CNN Underscored had an exclusive chat with Jean Wang, the director of Echo Frames. We started off with two new variants of the Frames and touched on the development of Amazon’s smart glasses.

Blue-light filtering and sunglasses

Amazon is now launching three new lens options for Echo Frames. Blue-light lenses, black polarized sunglass lenses and blue mirror sunglass lenses are available now for $269.99. None of these change the smarts packed inside; they’re just different lens types in the same frame. And you can still get the regular Echo Frames with blank clear lenses at $250.

These models offer a new entry point for potential Echo Frames customers while answering feedback from users — we even asked where a blue Frame option was in our review.

“We thought about providing utility and delight to customers who don’t naturally wear prescription frames,” says Wang. Amazon is aiming to offer an all-in-one solution from the moment you order. You won’t need to replace regular Echo Frames lenses with a blue-light or sunglass option. Those who need prescription lenses will still need to do that, though.

Blue-light filtering and sunglass options are coming at a time when many in the United States are ready to get back in the swing of things after more than a year of being locked down due to the pandemic. It makes sense that Amazon would launch a roadworthy pair of Echo Frames, with polarized (and cool-looking) blue mirror finishes.

The addition of blue-light lenses is welcomed, as it reduces the amount of emitted blue light from devices such as phones, tablets and laptops that can hit your eye. In real-world use, it should reduce eye strain for folks who have to be in front of a screen for long periods of time. We haven’t gone hands-on with the new lenses just yet, but they look pretty sharp in renders and photos.

Wang and the team at Amazon wanted the end product to be familiar, knowing that a good percentage of users would likely be prescription wearers. She noted that the design process included “a lot of interaction with optometrists [and] opticians to see how they fit and to make it just as seamless.”

This way there wouldn’t be a lot of extra work to properly fit Echo Frames for a user or to install prescription lenses. We went through that process with our day-one editions and the final product. Amazon includes an optometrist card in the box with Echo Frames, which details the proper ways to shape the glasses as well as installing the lenses. Wang further explains that they tested several versions of the card to pack all the crucial details and to make it a single comprehensive solution. And in our experience, it really wasn’t that difficult. We brought our Echo Frames to our personal optometrist and asked if they could do the install. There were some looks and questions on what smart glasses are, but after those it was a standard few day turnaround for installing the frames.

Why should you use Echo Frames?

Jacob Krol/CNN

A key part of our conversation with Jen Wang was on “why smart glasses?” and what exactly the Frames offer the everyday user.

“We have this kind of a north star vision for technology that enables customers to engage with the real world to be able to hear what’s around them while giving the hands-free access to Alexa and all the information, content and services that it provides,” says Wang. And that lines up with our testing — with onboard microphones, speakers and a connection to the internet courtesy of a smartphone, Echo Frames gave us instant access to Alexa. It’s a similar experience to that of an Echo smart speaker or smart display.

She sums it up quite nicely as “technology that’s really there when you need it and just fades away in the background when you don’t.” While around the house you could ask Alexa to make a list, add something to your Amazon cart (or even buy it), play music or send an announcement to your connected speakers. It’s the classic Alexa experience but centralized and privatized to you.

For instance, instead of pausing an Echo that might be playing throughout your house, you can just ask the query personally to your Frames. Or if you’re at home with family or friends, you can ask a personal request without disturbing others. It’s also a neat way to send a surprise broadcast to your other Alexa-enabled devices. The best interactions from our testing, though, happen when you’re out and about, as you can create a list or make any other request completely hands-free.

Alexa actually picks up your voice through two microphones that are toward the front of the hinge on Echo Frames. Wang explains that it “brings the microphones much closer to your mouth than normal earbuds.” It powers the Alexa experience and allows for your voice to be heard in a variety of environments, whether you’re whispering to yourself at a desk or giving commands in a noisy train station.

Open-ear speakers sit on the left and right stems of the Echo Frames to project the audio in a personal bubble around you. And while earbuds have made speakers smaller and smaller, “the speakers are actually bigger,” as Wang explains. “[The sound transmission] is away from your ear and it generates sound like in the sphere.” To fill that space, you need a larger speaker that is still pinpointed to the user specifically. As not everyone around you needs to hear what you’re saying, Wang notes that “we optimized our sound quality for voice, which is not too bass-heavy and not to skew for leakage.” And this full speaker, along with the rest of the hardware, was designed in-house by Amazon.

And this focus on audio quality was one of three key parameters that Wang walked us through. Leakage and Loudness were the other two keys. It involved Wang, along with her team, trying Echo Frames in a variety of scenarios. Some of them could be re-created in a testing lab, while others required them going into public. “There were times where we were all kind of walking together down the street trying to block the person wearing the Frames from being seen by other people because we were a confidential program. Definitely a fun time for testing or trying to be discreet,” describes Wang. Ultimately after testing outside and inside, they found “a sweet spot where we’re able to mask the leakage (aka the sound that someone could hear from Echo Frames), but still have the wearer hear.”

In our testing we found that Echo Frames do hit it quite well, while Bose Frames end up broadcasting too much sound at times. This ended up disturbing our colleagues in the office and fellow commuters on the train. Wang shares that the spot is around 12 to 18 decibels of sound. This level needs to be loud enough for the end user to enjoy as well.

Fit for the masses

Jacob Krol/CNN

Echo Frames feature a rounded rectangular lens that’s meant to be a one-size-fits-all for all types of people. Amazon tested a bunch of shapes — “all the way from more masculine shapes, such as aviators, to more feminine shapes, such as cat-eyes. What [was] broadly appealing ended up being this rectangular shape,” says Wang.

In fact, Wang explains they “increased the height of the lens opening and the width of it to fit broader populations.” It’s a smart decision and also slims down the amount of differing SKUs Amazon has to deliver. This approach is different from Bose, which offers multiple frame styles (circular and rectangular designs) that can appeal to different users. You don’t get that choice with Echo Frames, though, even on the new lens styles.

Similarly, it’s a one-size-fits-all solution for the Echo Frames themselves. In our testing, we noted that the Echo Frames had a somewhat flimsy feel even though carbon fiber, aluminum and a TR-90 plastic were the materials at play. They are lightweight glasses at 31 grams, yet they flexed a little more than to our liking. “The ability to have not a rigid front frame, per say, but the spring hinge [Amazon’s proprietary design] allows [it] to accommodate multiple kinds of face sizes and shapes,” Wang explains. Considering you cannot go to a store and get fitted for Echo Frames, it makes sense that they need to opt for a wider build or at least one with more flex into it.

Final thoughts: Price and value

“I fundamentally believe technology should help us be more human, or to be able to engage with each other. And so I think that’s part of the underpinning of Echo Frames, which is creating something that helps us be engaged with what matters most in our lives,” says Wang. More so than any other Amazon Device product, Frames stick out as an inherently personal product that the team really needed to get right.

However, Echo Frames are not an instant purchase for everybody at $250. These three new lens options solve the problem of “well, if I don’t wear glasses, they’re not for me,” but they’re even more expensive at $269.99. We asked about the potential for a lower-priced pair, but Wang states “that we will continue to listen to customers and see what makes sense there.” So no promises, but we could see something in the next generation. Historically some Amazon Devices, like Echo and Fire TV streamers, have seen lower starting prices down the line.

“These are smart frames that are alive in a way that, you know, they can get updates, they can improve on their smartness,” Wang explains. And unlike a typical pair of glasses, Echo Frames give you access to Alexa, music on the go, stories, the news and really whatever you want to ask the assistant.

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