The concept of an IRL heads-up display has been a part of science fiction since basically the beginning. Big players have tried their hand at it with less than stellar results — most notably Google with Glass, and more recently Intel’s Vaunt. But North may have cracked the nut on smart glasses with Focals.
They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — they’re slightly heavy and don’t feel quite as seamless as science fiction promised they would — but this may be the best pair of smart glasses yet.
Focals were created by North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $200 million in funding. Around the time Google Glass was released, founders Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey and Stephen Lake were working on a smart arm band. They were disenchanted, as were many, with Glass and sought to make something better.
Their first priority? Make a great pair of glasses, then outfit them with technology. In order to do that, they had to allow for prescription lenses, which means the lenses of their product had to be curved. This throws a huge wrench in the idea of lens-projected notifications and content, so Focals created its own special projector.
The company also felt that the touchpad on the side of Google Glass was overly cumbersome, leading them to build the Focals Loop to let users navigate the menu.
The Focals are technically AR glasses, but they’re not focused on gaming or content consumption. The product is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch for your face.
These notifications include the date and time, the weather, text notifications, email, Slack, Apple News alerts, Uber notifications, sports scores, turn-by-turn navigation and more. Users navigate this content using the Loop, a ring outfitted with a nub of a joystick, which is meant to be worn on the index finger of your dominant hand.
Users can proactively seek information by clicking the joystick and scrolling, but the headset also serves up information in a push notification, including incoming messages and emails.
Importantly, North implemented a smart response system to keep users from having to pick up their phone each time they get a notification. The system gives users two options: choose from a list of smartly generated responses, or use speech-to-text through Focals’ built-in Alexa integration (the system is listening via built-in mic — but wearers have to opt-in during set up).
However, one of the great advantages for the Focals is also one of its weaknesses. The company chose to build a custom pair of glasses that could work with Rx lenses. That also means that the eyebox (the surface where you can see the projection) is smaller than other AR gadgets, which often use waveguides. In other words, your Focals have to be positioned pretty near perfectly to see the image. The company works hard to make sure that’s the case, fitting the glasses to your specific face. But glasses shift and move throughout the day, which means there’s plenty of re-adjusting in order to see the picture.
All that said, the Focals look surprisingly good. In fact, passersby would be hard-pressed to detect that they’re smart glasses in the first place. They aren’t comfortable enough to wear all day — the extra weight on the front means they get a bit uncomfortable after a few hours. But overall, these are pretty discreet as far as smart glasses go.
It’s a relatively time-consuming process to get your hands on a pair of Focals. Because the fit and size are so important to usability, users interested in purchasing a pair must go to one of North’s two stores (there’s one in Toronto, and one in Brooklyn, NY).
The visit to the store is by appointment. Upon arrival, store associates will take you into a booth where you’ll sit before 11 cameras that will 3D model your head, determining where your eyes and ears sit relative to the rest of your face. The cameras also try to understand your gaze.
From there, you get a demo with a standard (not fitted) pair of Focals, during which you learn how to align the Focals and use the Loop. It takes a few weeks for your custom-fit Focals to be ready to pick up, at which point you go through a final sizing with an optician.
It’s tedious, and will be difficult for the company to scale, but it’s part of what gives Focals an edge in quality. Luckily for folks outside of Toronto and NY, Focals is heading off on a pop-up tour. You can check out the tour dates and locations here.
“Why?” is perhaps the toughest question to answer when it comes to the Focals. The goal, as outlined by the company, is to keep you connected to the digital world without taking you out of the real world. In short, stop looking down at your phone.
That said, Focals also take away the option. When your phone rings, or even when your Apple Watch buzzes, you have a choice to make: look down, or ignore. When you’re wearing the Focals, that decision is eliminated.
For this reason, I feel like this product is meant for early adopters and folks who enjoy being ultra-connected to the digital world. If you’re already addicted to the sweet chime of your phone, the Focals may very well keep you more connected to the real world, and potentially save your neck from some stiffness. But if you do well to live in the real world and don’t appreciate the constant flow of notifications to your phone, the Focals likely won’t help you maintain that separation.
There are also some minor issues with the Focals themselves. The Loop isn’t super comfortable, particularly when typing on a computer (something most of us spend hours each day doing). The Loop also seems like something that would be very easy to lose or break — this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (For now, North is replacing broken Loops for free.)
With the Focals themselves, I’d like to be clear when I say that I was pleasantly surprised with the overall experience. The UI is pleasant to look at, and the little chime of a notification that whispers in your ear is most certainly addictive.
However, I found my eyes getting tired after more than an hour wearing the Focals. Using the Focals means that you’re constantly changing the focus of your eyes from close to far away, which can be tiring. Moreover, if the glasses shift a bit on your face, the text of the notification can become fuzzy, making the experience even more tiring.
Plus, the glasses are built to bend halfway through the arms, as opposed to where the arms meet the frames. This means you can’t hang the Focals off the front of your shirt, which is an admittedly minor gripe, but it bugged me throughout the review process.
Add to that the fact that Focals start at $600 and this product is really for technophiles. For now.
North is on the right track. The company is constantly developing new features that are released each week — they recently launched Google Fit support to check your steps, as well as language lessons to brush up on your French during your walk to work. And they’ve started with the right priorities in mind. The Focals are fine looking glasses, and in general, the tech works. Now it’s about refinement.