There are more than a few hiccups with the promise of 3-D printed goods (which we’ve covered here), but one specific issue is the inevitable plastic ceiling. Until we can produce goods in materials other than plastic, the notion of say, 3-D printed shoes is going nowhere, because who can lust over a pair of yellow plastic boots the way they would a pair in leather.
But eyewear is different, and a fledgling company called Protos has taken notice. Ages ago, the Italian company Luxottica built their optical frames from goat horns (thus the term horn-rimmed glasses). But that’s history, and now eyewear makers—including industry darling Warby Parker—pretty exclusively craft their frames out of plastic.
It follows suit that 3-D printing is a solid match for spectacles. But more specifically, 3-D printing is a boon to anyone who wants bespoke frames. It’s a niche market that designers like Tom Davies have cornered and profited handsomely on by charging somewhere in the thousands for a pair of custom frames, the extra cost attached to the extra time and labor that comes with the personalization.
But a 3-D printer, of course, can speed up manufacturing, which is exactly how Protos works. "We’re making an experience where instead of someone going into an eyewear specialist, you go online and take two pictures of yourself," explains James Peo, one of the co-founders. Peo, who owns a chain of eyewear stores, can then style a pair of frames that best fits the customer’s unique arch, eyebrow, and bone structure.
"I’ve styled over 15,000 unique faces, which is a pretty large database in my head," he says. In fact, it proved large enough for him to leverage that expertise into an algorithm that Protos uses (and will soon have automated online) to shape up glasses for each user. It’s a math-driven approach to style, and Peo is firm in his belief that an algorithm, not your shopping buddy, knows best: "Unfortunately, that friend hasn’t been looking at 7,000 faces," he says.
Which isn’t to say Protos is all numbers with no sartorial sense. Eyewear has always been integral to the identity of certain people’s looks, and perhaps even more so now that Warby Parker has democratized the cost of owning trendy glasses. Protos asks users to fill out a questionnaire. "Who do they identify more with? Johnny Depp, Buddy Holly, Steve Jobs?" Peo says. Shoppers can also choose between moods, such as classic, hipster, and incognito. The Protos team mashes that information together with the measurements and sends the customer three designs. Each pair is built from a proprietary material that’s lighter than acetate, stronger than titanium, and at $299, a fraction of the usual bespoke price tag.
Read more about Protos, and check out their crowdsourcing campaign, here.