Seeing is Believing: North Unveils Focals

Wearables; the mention of the word evokes something different in everyone, whether it’s a sleek metal watch that tracks heartbeats while streaming Spotify, or a bulky pair of goggles that any person—a techie or not—wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public. There is a long history of success and failure in the wearables industry, but when it comes to glasses, no one has really done it right. Thalmic Labs—now rebranded as North—is betting $157 million that their new wearables play Focals will be the right device to bring smart glasses to the masses.

Through the looking glass

Focals is a pair of glasses designed for everyday use, emphasizing deep technological integration in the form of a holographic display capable of previewing messages, directions, weather updates, and more. Focals come in two styles (round and classic) and three colours (black, tortoise and grey fade), and ship in non-prescription and prescription variants (but no bifocals).

As expected, the frames are a little thick, but for how much is packed inside them, Focals still look extremely sleek and resemble something closer to a regular pair of glasses than a smart device. In fact, the form of Focals was designed first, after which the team went to work ensuring  all of the necessary technology could fit inside. As Aaron Grant, co-founder of North describes it, they ”didn’t want it to look like you were wearing a piece of technology on your head,” a common criticism for older glasses wearables.

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A pair of Focals and the Loop to control them.

Focals are controlled using Loop; Focals’ name for the navigation ring–optimized for the index finger–that comes in two colours. Loop has basic functionality—it can move up, down, left and right and recognize long and short presses for different actions on the display. The smart glasses can last an entire day on one charge, and come with a specially designed carrying case that charge Focals when they are placed inside. The case itself holds two to three charges, then it must be plugged in itself to charge to full.

Focals also rely on a companion mobile app for setup and configuration via a Bluetooth pairing. The app can be used to sync up third-party information (such as details for Uber) and tweak minor settings.

Grant describes Focals as having “nothing off the shelf” in terms of its tech. The true innovation lies with the display mechanism: A small projector on the side of the glasses shines a light onto a holographic display which is then reflected onto the back of the wearer’s right eye. This is what separates Focals from traditional screen-based wearable lenses or AR devices like Google Glass or Microsoft Hololense–there is no actual screen involved here. North claims the method uses benign light beams and is safe to shine into one’s eyes for a prolonged period.

One of the more interesting aspects of Focals is how North is planning to roll the device out. It will cost $999 USD ($1299 CAD) but it can only be purchased after physically visiting a showroom in either New York City or Toronto. These stores will open in November and establish a permanent retail space for Focals. Customers can pre-order them online now, but they will have to come into a store in order to be fitted, and pairs expect to begin shipping by early December.

“This is a brand new category. There’s nothing else like it in the world,” – Aaron Grant, co-founder of North.

“[The rollout] is about controlling the whole experience of how people are introduced to this product for the first time,” says Grant. “We want to talk to them about how they use it, how its different from augmented reality, and how it fits into their life. We’re intentionally limiting how quickly we roll things out because we want to learn as much as possible and make those experiences work really well.”

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North’s pre-launch marketing campaign for Focals.

North understands the product won’t appeal to every person who comes in off the street. Focals are specifically tailored to a certain type of buyer, at least for the initial launch.

“The people that are going to buy it are going to be those who are curious—the ones who like to answer questions like ‘what can I use this for’ and the people who want to then share that kind of experience,” explains Adam Ketcheson, the CMO at North.

But when someone does come in to procure a pair, the fitting process itself is extremely advanced. Customers enter a booth, guided by a trained North retail specialist, and sit on a chair surrounded by 11 different 3D cameras. After lining up eyes and ears to an onscreen display, several images are taken to create a replicated version of the customer’s head, ensuring a perfect fit. From there, the customer moves on to meet with an optician to choose the exact frames and colours they want.

Right now, Focals cannot be worn and turned on while driving, though North is testing and working with lawmakers to see what is feasible. Children under 13 are also not recommended to wear the product, so no Christmas Focals for the kiddies just yet.

Seeing is believing

The guiding principle for what Focals can do is both intuitive and counter-intuitive at the same time. The device strives to save the wearer time by making daily necessities available literally at a glimpse, but North is also determined to make sure Focals is something used for only “tens of minutes a day,” according to Grant. This means locking onto the apps and functionalities on the dock of everyone’s smartphone—messaging, schedules, maps, Uber and a virtual assistant (Alexa). Any future updates will be pushed automatically whenever a wearer has wifi.

“This display has direct access to your attention,” says Grant. “Your inclination as a company might be to build as many features as possible and shove them all in the product. That might work for some platforms, but for something like this, it goes against what we’re trying to do.”

“Focals should make you stay more present in the real world. That’s not only something we’re able to do but something we absolutely have to do for this product to work.” – Aaron Grant.

Uber is launching as a partner with North, so users can order a ride and have a notification pop up only when the driver has arrived—North calls these proactive updates, and they also function when a wearer interacts with maps through Focals. The indication to turn or change directions only pops up right before it happens, instead of having to check up on directions multiple times.

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The work North has done with Amazon and Alexa is also very thorough. The Alexa team actually had to design new capabilities with North to visually display certain skills and requests, something they had never done before. The deep integration with Alexa is something North did not originally plan, but something that came up during a one-year beta testing of the product. Users loved interacting with the virtual assistant, so North did all they could to feature it prominently.

In order for a user to interact with Alexa, order an Uber, or keep directions active on their Focals, the paired phone must have either available data or a wifi connection. There is no data or wifi connection onboard the smart glasses themselves.

Social media on Focals is a point of contention for North. They do not want a wearer to be scrolling through hours of Instagram or Twitter feeds, but they realize daily messaging habits heavily intertwine with social media, so the team is looking to strike a balance with further updates.

“The last thing we want to do is take everything on your phone and stick it in these glasses,” says Ketcheson. “That’s the opposite of creating something that helps you manage the complexity of your life.”

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A look at Focals’ overview feature.

There is one thing most people would be thinking of when it comes to having apps and products literally beamed into the back of their eyes, and it’s something North takes seriously.

“Advertisements are not something we’re thinking about right now,” – Aaron Grant.

“One of the really interesting things about Focals—because it’s in your face—is that we have the potential to enable all sorts of new experiences that aren’t possible with a phone or laptop because it can know more about you and your context,” says Grant. “In the wrong hands, it has the potential to be misused.”

That mantra applies to both advertising as well as North’s security and privacy plans. The company will only access data they need to make the product better, which comes through a typical aggregate data analysis method. All of the data is anonymized, so no individual wearer can be identified.

From sight to finish

Focals began their life five years ago in Kitchener, the home of the then-Thalmic Labs. At that point, the startup was well-known for their first wearable, the Myo armband, which was introduced in February 2013. Myo wrapped around someone’s wrist or bicep and gave the wearer the ability of enhanced gesture control, resulting in a range of use cases, including sign language translation, prosthetic limb training for amputees, and even a stint with the famous DJ Armin van Buuren as a device to control lighting during live shows.

Myo was designed to be a device to help control the future of computing devices. Thalmic was looking at what the next heads-up interface would be, whether it be advanced digital screens or AR displays, and hoped Myo would be able to control it.

“What they realized as they were building Myo was that those devices weren’t happening,” says Ketcheson. “They weren’t on roadmaps, and the ones that were coming out were falling flat. Thalmic had built a great product with Myo, but it didn’t fulfill their ambition.”

From there, Thalmic did some incredibly hard work to determine if that kind of market was a road they could venture down on their own. Proofs of concept and advanced R&D was completed in 2013 and the real hard work to design Focals started a year later. Two years later, in September 2016, Thalmic would announce their whopping $157 million Series B, which at that point, was thought to be going towards a rebranding of Myo or the launch of a similar gesture control device. Even deep into the research and work that would become Focals, Thalmic was expanding retail opportunities for Myo as late as summer 2015.

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Focals’ carrying/charging case.

An interesting point to note is that one of the lead investors in that Series B was the Amazon Alexa Fund. Focals relies upon Alexa integration but in September 2017, it was reported that Amazon was working on their own Alexa-powered smart glasses. Grant confirmed that Focals are not that device, saying “this is completely ours.”

It is unclear when North began to shift the heavy burden of work and research away from Myo and onto Focals, but that technology from the latter certainly made it into the former. The evolution of the Myo also helped North decide that a gesture-controlled device was not something they wanted to continue moving forward with, meaning no arms moving wildly trying to control Focals while while walking down a sidewalk.

Framing the future

As with any kind electronic hardware, this is only “version one” of Focals. There is no timeline for when a second version may appear, but before then, new aesthetic styles will be released for those looking to bump up their fashion game. Software updates will be much quicker, happening at least every couple of months, with patches and bug fixes coming as needed. Grant could not share any details in terms of how many Focals they have produced or on what scale, but North did unveil a 60,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Waterloo to make sure these are ready for the holiday season.

Through a bit of testing and understanding of North’s vision, it seems that the overall goal of Focals is to help a user reduce the complexities of their life by making the most-used features that keep someone connected available without lifting a finger. North has been working on this product for five years, and they are taking their time with the rollout to ensure they get everything about the incredibly hard-to-predict wearables market right.

As of now, North is the first to enter the smart glasses market with a viable product, an important step considering both Apple and Amazon (as mentioned above) have been rumoured to be creating prototypes. Focals do a lot of things right, but it’s up to the public to decide if this is the time to bring smart glasses to the masses.