Editor’s Note: When this article was originally published in October 2018, you couldn’t buy Level smart glasses on an e-commerce site – customers had to go through a VSP network doctor. And while you can still do that, as over November 2018, Level smart glasses are now available nationwide the company’s online eyewear store, Eyeconic. The below article has been updated to reflect this change.
VSP Global is the largest vision healthcare company on the planet, with over 88 million members. Its innovation wing, The Shop, is where its creative team of designers and biomedical engineers have free rein to create products that push future eyewear technologies to the limit. In the past, they’ve collaborated with Google on Google Glass and with Nike and Zeiss Optics on The Wing, a pair of really aerodynamic (and expensive) glasses for Olympic-level sprinters. I’ve been testing one of their latest innovations, Level, which is a wearable fitness tracker that doesn’t look like a typical wearable fitness tracker – Level looks like a nice, normal pair of eyeglasses.
Marchon, owned by VSP Global, is one of the world’s biggest eyewear manufacturers, and Level glasses are designed in the same factories with the same detail and fine materials as the company’s Italian-made glasses. What sets Level apart is that in one of its arms are housed a suite of sensors and tech: gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, Bluetooth and battery. (The other arm is weighted to evenly balance the frames.) The frames aren’t designed to be an advanced fitness tracker, like an Apple Watch. There’s no built-in GPS or heart-rate sensors; instead, Level is more of a wellness tracker. It can track your steps, distance traveled, overall active minutes and even how many calories you burn throughout the day. The companion app can send you push notifications to encourage you to walk more to reach your step goals and earn more points. Yes, points. They are what make Level more unique than its competition.
Each day wearers can earn a maximum of two points if they achieve both their daily steps goal and daily stretch goal. When they reach 50 total points, VSP Global, which operates the charitable programs known as Eyes of Hope, will give a free comprehensive eye exam and a pair of eyeglasses (if needed) to a person-in-need: either a veteran, a person affected by homelessness, a child or an elderly person. In the Level app, you select which group of people you want to help by achieving your fitness goals. The thinking behind this, beyond pure altruism, is that some people can’t motivate themselves to be active; however, if they know that they could also help somebody else by being active, that might provide extra incentive.
Level is both a simple gadget and a nice pair of eyeglasses. It’s water-resistant, charges via micro-USB (in the joint) and has roughly a five-day battery life. On the eyewear side, Level comes in three different options for frames – check them out, here – and each costs $270 without prescription lenses.
The Good: Level is a wearable that you don’t have to think about – you just wake up, put on your glasses and then go about your day. It looks and feels like traditional eyeglasses and no, it doesn’t scream, “Hey, I’m wearing a fitness tracker on my face!” The battery life is excellent. Just like a lot of eyewear, they are very customizable. You can get them with prescription and/or polarized lens, or even photochromic lenses that are clear when you’re inside, but automatically darken when exposed to sunlight. The app is simple to use and accurately tracks your metrics. There are several frames to choose between. Also, by simply wearing Level every day you can also help those who are less fortunate.
Who They’re For: You should wear prescription eyewear, but anybody purchase Level smart glasses. If you’re a VSP member, however, you’re able to apply your vision care benefits toward the purchase of Level to greatly reducing the overall cost. They’re only available in select cities for now – Sacramento, DC, Denver, Seattle, Portland, LA and Minneapolis – but they are preparing to expand availability in the near future (think weeks).
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Watch Out For: Don’t expect this to be an elite-level fitness tracker. There’s no heart-rate sensor or built-in GPS. The app requires you to open it a few times a day, or else you won’t receive activity updates about your activity throughout the day. If you’re interested in buying Level, you’ll can search for a VSP network doctor in your area who carries the product; or you can shop on company’s online eyewear store, Eyeconic.
Alternatives: The term “smart glasses” can go one of a few ways. There are augmented reality glasses, like Microsoft Hololens, Vuzix Blade AR and Intel’s Vaunt, but none of those look like glasses you’d wear as part of your normal wardrobe. And there are Bluetooth-enabled glasses like the Oakley Radar Pace or even Snap Spectacles, which can coach you to fitness or take photos, respectively. But again, both look and feel rather tech-y. Level, on the other hand, look and feel like a great pair of designer glasses that you wear every day.
Review: Full disclosure: I don’t normally wear eyewear. I’m in my late 20s and still have pretty-near perfect vision, but the team behind the Level smart glasses reached out to me, partially because I had done a story on The Shop last year, but more importantly because you don’t need to normally wear eyeglasses to appreciate Level. It’s a wearable – that’s how I treated them. My loaner pair were sunglasses and didn’t have prescription lenses, which allowed for easy testing despite my not being the ideal use-case. While Level smart glasses are meant to be worn all day long, I only wore them while I was outside. Still, I was able to track my data, though because I didn’t wear them constantly, in a two-week period I was only able to reach my daily steps goal – 10,000 steps – on a few different occasions.
I think it’s important to judge these Level smart glasses on two different merits: one, how they are as a piece of fashion and two, how they are as a gadget. The first is easy: as eyewear, Level blend right in and look like a normal pair of glasses (in my case, sunglasses). In my few weeks of wearing them – I wore the Nikola frames (pictured) – no one mentioned they looked weird. That’s because they don’t. I wore them to my cousin’s wedding and while hiking in Arizona and the fact that they were smart glasses was never brought up. Heck, I almost forgot.
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There are things that remind you that Level aren’t standard eyeglasses, of course. They feel slightly heavier than the sunglasses that I typically wear, but you only really notice this weight difference when you pick them up. (Although each pair weights about 40 grams, which Level says isn’t heavy compared to most other eyewear.) And when you’re wearing them, they are evenly weighted and don’t feel heavy on your face – I had no issue wearing them for hours at a time. The app, which can send your smartphone occasional updates throughout the day, is the only further reminder that you’re wearing smart glasses.
Level is a good gadget too. As I mentioned before, Level is simple. It tracks steps, calories and somewhat vaguely named “active minutes” – and that’s it. In general, I found that it does a good job of tracking these things. In fact, if you talk to the people behind Level they’ll tell you it does as good a job (or better) at tracking these basic metrics than wrist-bound wearables like the Apple Watch, because glasses are worn centrally on your axis and there’s less noise or movement from extremities.
However, the main issue I found was in using the app to track my progress and overall goals. The wearer is required to open the companion app every 12 hours; if they don’t, the app will automatically log them out and stop pushing notifications to their smartphone. The glasses will still track activity as long as they have battery life, however – which is actually really good, lasting around five days. I rarely opened the app, so I was frustrated, but when I mentioned this to the team behind Level, their answer actually made sense. It boils down to privacy.
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VSP Global is a healthcare company that has to comply with HIPAA standards and, because of that, they are legally obligated to treat Level’s data as personal health information: private. This is why you have to create an account through your email, rather than through Facebook or Instagram or any other social platform. The data is the wearer’s and Level isn’t sharing it with anybody. This is also why, if you’re inactive for over 12 hours, the app will automatically make you sign in again from scratch. The app won’t autofill anything for you.
Verdict: Level are really nice, high-quality eyeglasses. They’re also a simply-yet-reliable wearable. Remember, there’s no built-in GPS or heart-rate sensors, and the glasses shouldn’t be expected to track any activities other than running or walking. But if you want to track everyday wellness, and to make sure that you’re at least moving around – Level works well and looks really good, too. Just make sure to open that app more often than every 12 hours.
Frames: Minsky, Hedy, Nikola
Sensors: gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, Bluetooth
Battery: five days
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