Let’s be real for a minute. Smart glasses look dumb. There’s really no other way to put it right now. There are a few cool options out there that resemble a normal-ish pair of glasses. But for the most part, when you put on tech-based spectacles, you look like you’re wearing tech-based spectacles.
Magic Leap’s mixed reality things? They make you look like a human-sized bug. Google’s old Glass project? They turn you into a humanoid. The X1 smart glasses from ThirdEye Gen? A decent attempt, but still a little clunky to wear. The Snapchat Spectacles are whimsical but otherwise underwhelming. And then there’s Vuzix, which seems to be onto something with their Blade smart glasses, but they’re still in the pre-consumer-ready stage still.
All of those products, for how different they are, all have one thing in common. They all take a product first approach to smart glasses. As tech companies, they’re not wrong in doing so, and really that’s their nature: Make a product and expect that there’s a segment of the consumer market that’s going to be attracted to it and buy it. But these are glasses that we’re talking about—a very personal product that requires a ton of precision and customization in order to provide the user with the best fit and the right look for their style.
That’s where tech brand North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs, hopes to step in and completely transform the way that users shop for smart glasses. The company announced today the launch of their first smart glasses product, Focals, which are available for preorder for $999.
The glasses come in a few different base options—two styles (Classic and Round) and three different colors (Black, Tortoise, and Grey Fade)—and can offer prescription or nonprescription lenses. But it’s the fitting experience that completely changes the game with North. Rather than have the user simply look online at the different combinations and pick what they think might look best, you’re asked to create an appointment at one of their physical locations—in Brooklyn or Toronto—in order to get sized and custom-fitted, and actually see the glasses on your face.
“Eyewear is incredibly personal. When you buy glasses you’re weighing a combination of fit and personal expression to find the perfect pair for you. That process is very much at odds with how consumer electronics are built and sold today,” Stephen Lake, co-founder and CEO of North, said in a statement. “Others have tried and failed to create smart glasses people love because they built a computer to wear on your face and made them glasses as an afterthought. We did it the other way around. We designed Focals to be glasses first and invented new technology that we could conceal inside.”
North will then manufacturer the personalized Focals for you, ship them to the store, and have you come in for one last fitting and initial setup before setting you out into the wild with your newfound tech toy.
In an interview with Dealerscope ahead of the announcement, Lake explained that the fitting process is incredibly precise and involves 16 different cameras that create a 3D model of the user’s face. This obviously let’s the company create the perfect fit for the wearer, but it also allows you to see how Focals will look on you while you’re basically staring at your digital self. You could also just put a test pair on and look in a mirror, of course, but where’s the fun in that?!?
The Brooklyn location is still under construction, but Lake said its on track to open in November. Renderings of the location and Lake’s own description of the store, show how the smart glasses are really integrated throughout the store. Giant glass walls display larger-than-life versions of the Focals user interface, giving customers a great look at what those notifications will look like in the spectacles. The modern layout of the store makes the shopping experience more akin to walking into an Apple store than your local LensCrafters, though the store really performs more like the latter in reality.
It’s almost astonishing that, several years down this smart glasses rabbit hole, no one has thought to take this sort of approach to the space. But Focal appears to have figured it out. The only thing that could hold them back at this point is the limited physical footprint. Being in New York and Toronto are smart strategic decisions as far as getting into densely populated areas. But it could be a tough sell to someone out in LA who’s interested in these, asking them to take an expensive round trip just to get fitted for these—then do it all over when the glasses are ready for pickup at the store.
But it’s a start. Lake wasn’t ready to commit publicly to further retail expansion, though if these first two stores perform how North hopes that certainly would have to be in their plans.
Behind the Glasses
The feature set of the Focals sound like any other pair of smart glasses that you’ve read about. They allow you to read incoming messages and send quick replies, you can get turn by turn directions right in your field of vision, all kinds of notifications come through the UI, and there’s access to Amazon Alexa so you can control your home devices and order an Uber right from your frames.
For the display, North developed a holographic projection system that’s embedded on the inside of the frames, keeping the integrity of the real-glasses design intact, while allowing the user to see the heads up display. The only tell to the outside onlooker that these are smart glasses is the tiny area on the lens that resembles something of a smudge when viewed at the right angle. Otherwise, these really do look like a traditional pair of glasses.
When you receive your Focals, they come with a charging case that is reminiscent of Snap’s Spectacles charging case, but a lot nicer and a lot less yellow… The glasses get roughly a full day with a single charge, or about 18 hours with standard use, according to Lake.
Navigating the interface is done in a rather unique way. North developed a little ring accessory called the Loop that integrates a tiny joystick. Lake said the Loop enables the user to “discretely” interact with their smart glasses. Of course, with Alexa integration, you can also just ask the digital assistant to perform one of her tens of thousands of skills to engage with the glasses and the rest of the connected world around you.
With preorders live today, North said it expects to begin shipping those first completed glasses to stores in 2019.