Although few people seem to really want to wear smart glasses or goggles — think Google Glass or Snapchat Spectacles — a startup thinks it’s figured out the recipe to augmented reality success. North, which just rebranded from Thalmic Labs, is launching its first product today, called Focals, with the goal of starting a bunch of Warby Parker-esque stores that’ll sell lots of connected glasses. It’s trying to create the first pair of “everyday smart glasses.”
When I meet Stephen Lake, CEO of North, at the company’s new Brooklyn, New York store last week, which was still under construction, he’s wearing Focals. I immediately scan his face to figure out where the display is and settle on a little spot on the right lens of his glasses that looks like a smudge. The photopolymer material that serves as the display location isn’t noticeable for the most part, but when it catches the light, it looks like the glasses need to be wiped down.
I came to the store to try out the Focals buying experience for myself and to see what the casual smart glasses fuss is all about. The glasses show wearers a bunch of information from their phone; can call an Uber; and are extremely customizable to the point of requiring a 3D model of each wearers’ face to make them work.
Lake and his team took me through the purchasing process, which involves sitting in a dark room surrounded by 16 cameras and one attendant. I had to put my hair back in a cotton headband (that I got to keep!) and line my face up with a pair of software-created glasses on a screen. The cameras then took a bunch of photos simultaneously to create a 3D model of my ears, nose, eyes, and face. I’m sure it’s really attractive!
The first scan didn’t work, so the attendant had to put a separate plastic headband on me that helped guide the software to follow my ears.
This worked, at last. And now, I could actually try on a pair of Focals.
Each Focals pair features a tiny, color laser in the right arm that displays information from your phone over Bluetooth. That laser bounces off a piece of photopolymer material built into the glasses’ right lens, then heads into your eye. It creates a 15-degree viewing area that’s about 300 x 300 pixels.
The glasses work more or less the same as Intel’s disbanded Vaunt smart glasses project in that both take advantage of retinal projection, meaning the image they display shines on the back of your retina, which leaves everything in focus. You’ll be able to wear Focals with or without prescriptions or with contacts. Focals won’t work with bifocals, however, and can only handle prescriptions between +2 and -4.
North built custom software for the glasses and designed the UI in-house. It’s colorful with slight animations that I think look nice. You can view your messages, send automated responses that North crafted through SMS, call an Uber, get turn-by-turn directions through Mapbox, view your calendar, and check the weather.
The image will automatically disappear after three seconds of non-use, which I wish came with the option to be extended, but North’s team likes the idea of non-obtrusive technology that keeps us “centered in the real world.”
Each pair has enough battery to last 18 hours, North says, and can be recharged only through their companion case. This case also charges the essential Focals accessory: the Loop. The Loop is a plastic ring with a joystick-like button that looks like any plastic smart ring you’ve seen on the market. It’s bulky and doesn’t look so nice, but it allows wearers to swipe through their glasses’ interface without having to touch their glasses or do something with their head. A ring makes way more sense to me, although again, it’s ugly.
You can swipe through your notifications by pushing left or right on the Loop joystick and pressing down to make a selection. You can also use it to trigger Amazon’s Alexa assistant because yes, Alexa is built-in. The glasses have a microphone and speaker inside, so you can issue commands to Alexa and hear responses if necessary. (Amazon was a leading investor in North’s Series B funding.)
As far as the actual glasses, they’re stylish enough. They come in two styles and three colors, and each one includes a pair of clip-on sunglass lenses in either black or copper. It’s not a wide range of styles, but they’re definitely nowhere near the nerd levels of Google Glass or even Snap Spectacles.
Everything about the glasses has to be customized. Lake tells me North runs a massive factory in Canada where they process orders and fit the frames and lenses to each wearer. Keep in mind that you have to keep the display directly in your line of sight or else it’ll disappear, so those measurements are crucial to the glasses’ success.
The demo pair I tried had a couple hiccups, like Alexa not immediately responding to my commands, but I didn’t hate the experience. It’s the most pleasing AR demo I’ve had and is definitely more calming than virtual reality. It feels manageable. That said, I’d be interested to test the glasses at night to see how bright the projector is. I’m also sad I’d have to wear that plastic ring to make the glasses work.
And the price is a lot to take in. A pair costs $999, which includes lenses, the prescription, anti-glare coatings, and the fitting. You can apply to use insurance money against it, but still, that’s a lot of cash especially considering that glasses wearers are enjoying owning multiple pairs of cheaper frames. It’ll be for sale at the Brooklyn store or the company’s other location in Toronto, Ontario. Orders will take around two weeks to process once everything is up and running, and the first pairs will go out around the holidays this year, although only in the classic frame. The round frame will ship in 2019, as will prescription lenses.
A laser being projected into my retina sounds like a futuristic thing, for sure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more companies start exploring this space. It’s at least more pleasant than staring at an extremely bright display all day. But I don’t trust that every company is going to value an unobtrusive interface like North says it does. So once the glasses don’t automatically sleep after three seconds, maybe a floating display in front of my face all day won’t actually be so great.
Correction 10/23, 8:34 AM ET: A prior version of this article referred to North as North Labs in some instances. We regret the error.