The dream of Google Glass lives on via North's stylish and normal-looking smartglasses that bring text messages and navigation prompts into the user's field of view and Amazon Alexa integration for voice-activated assistance.
After the company formerly known as Thalmic Labs teased the launch last month, the Focals smartglasses are now available to preorder for $999 in New York and Toronto, where the company's showrooms are located (hence the localized advertising campaign limited to those cities).
Focals replicate the heads up display approach to AR that Google Glass promised while avoiding the utilitarian design and the cyborg-like appendages. The light engine for projecting content still exists, but it's tucked inside the temple near the outside corner of the user's eye. The display is built into the lenses, designed to reflect narrow bands of red, blue, and green light with all other points on the light spectrum passing through to the eye.
For user input, Focals shares the voice-activated approach of Glass. However, instead of a temple-mounted trackpad, users navigate a ring-mounted joystick called Loop, a logical approach for a company whose first product was a motion-tracking armband.
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One of the notable omissions is a camera, so users won't be able to capture point-of-view photos and video as they would with Glass (or even Snap's Spectacles), much less display 3D content in the physical environment. Then again, Focals also sidesteps privacy issues and backlash that dogged Glass.
"Others have tried and failed to build smart glasses people love because they started with function and fought their way back to form — we did it the other way around. We painstakingly crafted an aesthetic for Focals that was bold enough to make a statement, but discreet enough for everyday wear," said Stephen Lake, co-founder and CEO of North, in a blog post.
Interactions at launch are limited. The smartglasses deliver text messages, calendar events, turn-by-turn navigation, and weather, along with the integration of Uber for ride-hailing and Amazon Alexa for music, news, timers, etc. (The latter is expected due to funding from Amazon's Alexa Fund.) North will add more functionality over time, but the company has not made a software developers kit available at this time.
"We arrived at an interface that feels immediate and glanceable, but also minimalistic. It doesn't take over what you're seeing or the world around you. Instead, it features small, utilitarian pieces of information that float an arm's length in front of you that you can view, act on or dismiss," said Lake. "We intentionally chose to build experiences that were made to take out into the world with you, beyond the confines of your living room."
As far as specs go, Focals run on the Qualcomm MSM8909w chip, which is designed for smartwatches running Google's Wear OS. It connects to iOS and Android devices via Bluetooth 4.1. The device also packs a microphone and directional speaker, and an array of sensors that include nine-axis IMU, ambient light sensor, and proximity sensors.
With a 700 mAh battery, Focals can run for 15 hours Focals are rated IP55 for water resistance, so it can take a splash of water but not a shower or a swim, while the Loop is IP66 rated, so it can withstand your average hand washing.
North offers two styles of Focals, with the Classic version shipping in December and the Round design arriving in 2019. Included in each order are Focals and Loop, along with sun clips, battery case, cleaning cloth, wall plug, and a three-foot USB-C cable. Prescription lenses are not available at launch, but the company notes they are coming soon.
The smartglasses require custom sizing, with appointments booked on first come, first serve basis, therefore prospective buyers must be able to commit to one of the two showrooms to proceed with their preorders. Otherwise, interested parties can reserve a pair by committing a $100 deposit.
Focals offers a huge step forward in the quest for consumer-grade augmented reality wearables, but it isn't without its compromises. It can't do spatial computing or display 3D content in the user's physical environment like HoloLens, Magic Leap One, and Meta 2, and it doesn't even have a camera like Google Glass and other enterprise-focused smartglasses. But, then again, you can wear Focals in public. The price is in-line with premium smartphones, but, for its limited HUD functionality, it's more expensive than smartwatches that offer similar quality-of-life improvements.
With smartglasses from the likes of Apple and Snap expected to arrive within the next two years, North's Focals offers the first litmus test for a mainstream AR wearable and a guide for the industry on what the expectations for the form, function, and price will be going forward.
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