“People want sports eyewear that’s smart, not smart glasses for sport”

An interview from Materialise with Eric Marcellin-Dibon, CEO, and Xavier Bonjour, Product Marketing Manager of Microoled, the company behind ActiveLook – one of the newest concepts in smart sports tech.

Welcome both. Can you perhaps start by telling us about ActiveLook?

Xavier: Of course. ActiveLook is a system that enables sports brands and eyewear manufacturers to transform their glasses into live, personalized, performance information displays.

The concept is quite simple; patented lens technology we’ve developed ‘activates’ lenses to receive and transparently show sports/physical performance information from a miniaturized AMOLED microdisplay enabled with compatible software. This software means the wearer will easily be able to pair – via Bluetooth – their eyewear with market-leading apps on their smartphones, smartwatches or fitness trackers, etc. In summary, it means any sports eyewear brand will have the opportunity to harness augmented reality technology to offer an exciting ‘value add’ for its customers.

The concept may be simple, but was making it a reality straightforward?

Eric: Ha! Not quite. But that was because we wanted to come at this from a different angle. There have been attempts to launch smart eyewear in a sport before, but many have failed because they were tech-led in their approach. They tried to make smart glasses suitable for sport, the result being technical capability let down by frames that were too heavy, awkward, and unattractive to wear – especially in an active sports setting.

So, while our starting point was our micro OLED display technology, optics, and electronics – and reducing the weight of these components down to just 9 grams – our ‘to market’ proposition had to be driven by what wearers want. Sports glasses and sunglasses that look and feel great. People want sports eyewear that’s smart, not smart glasses for sport – and that’s why 3DP became the perfect enabler for us.

Tell us a little more about that – how did your journey with 3DP begin?

Eric: We were already familiar with 3D Printing as a prototyping tool – we use it in-house at Microoled a great deal. And we always knew that this was a route we would go down with prototypes for ActiveLook as it would enable rapid design iterations to ensure our complex technology could truly be ‘invisibly’ integrated into eyewear.

What we hadn’t considered was 3DP for mass production, for that we had intended to go down an injection molding route.

What changed your mind?

Xavier: About a year ago we started to see 3DP gain more traction as a mass production tool and began to investigate opportunities. We hit a few dead ends but were then introduced to Materialise. Something stood out. Materialise is a 3D Printing specialist actively developing solutions for, and working collaboratively with, eyewear brands – a tech company taking an application-led approach. Just like us.

We visited the factory and saw for ourselves what was possible. How mass production processes worked, the production capacity on offer, and the print consistency achievable. I also remember thinking, if this is a company Airbus trusts for accuracy and volume, that’s a pretty good endorsement

Eric: To appeal to our target market, big sports and eyewear brands, we didn’t just need a great technical system – which we believed we had. We wanted to be able to offer design and production flexibility; a way they could always integrate our technology into eyewear designs to support their specific brand identity, get to market quickly and implement adjustments cost-effectively based on customer feedback. That’s possible with 3D Printing in a way that just isn’t with alternative routes.

Shapes, surfaces, hinges, colors, temple assemblies, curvatures – working with Materialise as a design and production partner, we could offer brands a way to ‘play with what’s possible to meet their specific design needs, and then make it happen. This is exactly what we are now doing.

Working with Materialise as a 3DP production partner has also presented us with a way to de-risk production of our own ‘house’ brand – ViewTrail – which we can use as a testbed for developing our platform ecosystem (particularly in terms of new software integrations) and strengthening our wider proposition for sports brands that would benefit from our technology.

Have you already started working with some eyewear/sports brands?

Xavier: Yes, we have. At this year’s SILMO we announced a new partnership with performance sports eyewear specialist Julbo and we’ve also been working with Uvex on a range for their cycling business.

What’s quite interesting is that they went on exactly the same 3DP journey that we did. Previously they’d only ever used injection molding for production but when we explained our proposition, showed the look, quality finish, and functional performance possible, and took them on a tour of Materialise’s production facilities, they immediately recognized the benefits. As they say, seeing is believing.

Eric: We’ve also been getting some high-profile exposure elsewhere in the sporting community, for example, we were invited to show ActiveLook at a special innovation event at the Tour de France!

Julbo, the first company to integrate ActiveLook technology in its sports eyewear

On the subject of innovation – what’s the next step for Microoled and the ActiveLook system, and how do you think 3DP might help?

Eric: From a technical perspective we’ve seen how our technology can be incorporated into eyewear thanks to the techniques and design freedoms possible with 3DP. What’s next for us is seeing how we might be able to print some of the components inside our technology. With ever-improving pin-point accuracy and a wider variety of materials becoming available – I don’t see why this shouldn’t be possible.

So that’s a technical ambition. Aesthetics is the other innovation path for us, one we need to walk together with a 3DP partner like Materialise to make sure we stay ahead of the curve. New surface techniques for ‘printing in textures and finishes that alter the look and even functional performance of frames; that’s what we need, what eyewear needs, and what those wearing our end-products want.

The other opportunity for us…now we’ve taken our first 3DP mass-production steps…is mass customization. Sports brands are used to the concept. The sports professionals and enthusiasts they wish to appeal to, want something personal to them. Something tailored to their individual needs as a sportsperson. An athlete. You see it all the time with shoes, equipment, etc. so why not in terms of their smart eyewear? It’s definitely an important avenue we’ll be exploring.

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