UNBOXED: Reviewing the North Focals Smart Glasses
Aside from 5G, one of the most-hyped-up tech segments today has to be augmented reality. In fairness, the two will really go hand in hand with the launch of 5G presenting a whole new level of opportunity for the expansion of AR products and services. But as it stands right now, AR—more specifically smart glasses—is a technology that’s still in its early stages. I can confidently say that we’re still waiting to see the perfect implementation of augmented reality technology, but the closest I’ve experienced to-date has to be what North was able to produce in their Focals smart glasses.
Admittedly, I’ve been anxiously and enthusiastically following the North story since the company first introduced their product back in October 2018. The big pitch at that time revolved around the company’s desire to flip the script on shopping for a tech product by taking a more personalized approach. More akin to actual glasses shopping with a techy spin—because, of course—North goes through a very detailed and in-depth fitting process for each pair of Focals in order to build a final product that is literally tailored to the user’s face.
The customer journey, while difficult for anyone not located near the company’s Brooklyn or Toronto shops, or one of their mobile pop-up stations, was a seamless one. After the initial fitting, North puts the order in, and a few weeks later, you’re called back into their showroom for a final fitting. At that appointment, adjustments are made to the nosepiece in order to get the viewing angle set just right, and the associate will walk you through the initial setup of the product. From a retail and customer service perspective, North certainly scored high marks.
Turning to the Focals themselves, my emotions are mostly positive but still a little mixed.
Augmented reality glasses, in general, have been really missing the mark with the most famous example being Google Glass when it launched a few years back. Every pair of smart glasses I’ve ever strapped on my face, these Focals included, are a little tough to get used to. That may be because I’m someone who never has had to wear glasses (though I know that day is coming…), but it also certainly has to do with the awkward designs, heavy weight, and overall clunky-ness of the products in this category.
Focals, for what it’s worth, are by far the most comfortable pair of smart glasses I’ve ever worn. That said, they are a little on the heavy side, and I did find myself having to slide them up the bridge of my nose quite often, or readjust so I could get a clear view of the display. But thinking about glasses in general, as a nonglasses wearer here, isn’t that a common issue with every pair of bifocals (minus the fancy tech display being in there)?
Perhaps more important though, these are absolutely the most natural looking pair of smart glasses on the market—hands down. The double glances that I got while wearing them around the office were mostly just people reacting to the fact that I had glasses on at all, and it wasn’t until they got close enough to have a standard conversation that they noticed Focals weren’t just a normal pair of glasses. That right there might be the highest praise we could give smart glasses of any kind right now, and it’s a huge win for Focals. And for those with a prescription lens, Focals offers a way for you to get that prescription built right into their frames so that these can become your everyday glasses.
Focals feature a mini projector positioned inside of the right arm. The image projects onto a transparent piece of film in the glasses making the image appear as if it’s floating in front of the user. On the right side of the frames on the bottom portion of the glasses you’ll find the power switch, a magnetic charging port, and a mini speaker. Focals ship with a Loop ring—which the user gets sized for at the initial fitting—that has a four-directional joystick. The Loop allows the user to interact with and navigate through the software. Additional accessories include a sunglasses attachment that clips onto the frames, a USB-C charging cable, a screen cleaning cloth, and a sleek charging case.
It all comes down to the user interface with Focals, though. And, again, North hits a home run in my opinion. Focals are tethered via an app to the user’s phone, so you’re essentially talking about an extension of your smartphone being placed in the your field of vision. Key to the UI strategy is that North isn’t trying to overwhelm the user with these glasses. Focals have an almost identical pitch to the one Apple gave when launching their smartwatch, which was that it let the user put their phone down and be more engaged in the moment. You can pick and choose which notifications are most important to you, and that’s all you’ll see come through on Focals. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with notifications today, so having the ability to turn them on and off is a big plus.
Currently, the glasses have a feature set list that runs a lot shorter than you’d hope, which likely explains their price restructuring earlier this year. Right now, users are definitely investing in a product that does have a lot future potential. But it’s important to note that the future potential is absolutely there. Focals are only going to get better.
North does have a few native apps baked right into the glasses, including a daily quiz game, a language-learning app, sports score updates, and a turn-by-turn walking navigation app. Other features in the software include a Chromecast extension that lets you control presentations from your Focals, access to the Amazon Alexa voice assistant, an Uber app, and more. And what’s promising from a consumer standpoint with the glasses is the fact that North is constantly—like, almost once a week—pushing out updates to the glasses that bring new functionalities or to get rid of bugs. The past few updates, for example, have added more transit options, support for third-party apps like Spotify and OneNote, they’ve expanded support for Google’s suite of products, and more.
Focals are certainly a far cry from anything you might’ve seen on Black Mirror, but there’s no way we’re ready as a consuming public for that level of tech anyway. As an entry-level step into the augmented reality space, North hit the nail on the head with their smart glasses. While you are actively putting a display in front of your face, the product itself is really nonintrusive and performs as intended. They’re comfortable, they’re smart, and they look natural. North is only able to accomplish all of that by putting the consumer at the forefront of their experience.