The future is here – Notifications from your phone, right in front of your eye, that only you can see in a pair of glasses. They are called Focals by Canadian company, North. Focals have a bunch of features you likely use every day – Show your phone notifications, Respond to SMS, Spotify, Alexa, map directions, call an Uber, Google Fit, sports scores, flights, games and more. These are not simply Google Glass version 2. The first thing you will notice about Focal’s by North is that they are sexy and stylish glasses. They look like every other designer pair of normal glasses you would see on a person’s face. Every single person that watched me try them on, told me how attractive the glasses looked (which was a minor shock to my ten-year-ago self who purchased laser eye surgery to rid myself of glasses). There is no denying these glasses have that stylish, trendy glasses look. North thinks that there’s a market for regular, stylish glasses that just happened to have some technology smarts built into them. Let’s get started on a Smart glasses Focals by North Review .
North is one of the best funded startups in Canada. They secured $120 million USD of venture capital in 2016, three years after they had already raised $14.5 million USD. Amazon, Intel, the Canadian gov’t and many others, make up the over 22 investors. The story of North goes back to 2013. Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey, and Stephen Lake, the founders of Thalmic Labs, announced MYO, a gesture controlled armband controller. They tried to pair the armband with Google Glasses, to see if there was any synergy between them. They felt Google Glasses were too intimidating and “nerdy” for people to wear for an entire day. They decided they could do a better job creating smart glasses that people would actually want to wear. They rebranded their company to North and pivoted to the new product, Focals. They called the company North, because it’s based out of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, just outside of Toronto, it is definitely farther north than typical Silicon Valley technology based start ups.
The visual effect image that appears is located in front of your right eye. This right lens has a tiny photopolymer film square inside it, which makes the light reflect in a precise way. The glasses have a tiny projector on the right side of the glasses frames. That projector bounces the notification from your phone, off the photopolymer lens that is embedded in the glasses. This displays the image on the back of your retina. You see the notification clearly. Nothing is actually visually projected on the glasses so nobody else can see anything except you. Pretty neat tech.
Focals work by pairing via bluetooth with your smartphone in a similar way to how a smartwatch does. All of the intelligence is really in the phone app. This makes for easier and ongoing software features and updates, which Focals has done several times in the time I’ve had them already. All of the navigational movements for the glasses are done with a small ring, joystick called “The Loop”. It has a tiny button and the ability to move up, down, left, and right. Since everything is done via the loop and app, this means that only the tiny projector is required in the Focals for hardware. Focals do not have a camera built in so we don’t have to worry about the privacy nightmare that came from Google Glass. There is a also a tiny speaker that will allow you to hear notification and converse with built in Amazon Alexa. Focals will detect if you are driving and turn off the features automatically.
You can not make phone calls at this time. North wanted everything to be brief, glanceable interactions, and phone calls do not fit that. You can respond to text messages via predictive text, emoticions, or speaking though. When your phone gets a notification, it will appear briefly on your Focals and then disappear. You should be able to maintain regular normal conversations with people and they will have no idea you are reading a notification or even responding to it via your Loop. I found that when I am wearing a smartwatch, that brief glance to the watch – although better than pulling out my phone – people can sometimes think you are bored and checking the time to go. Focals fixed that problem.
Anyone who has a wearable is distinctly aware of one of their largest limitations, battery life. The cool things about Focals by North glasses and the Loop ring is they charge via a proprietary carrying case. The case is kind of like a small battery backup that will provide up to three days worth of charge for the Focals and ring. You charge the case via a simple USB. I don’t wear my glasses all of the time, so putting them back in the case is keeping them charged and safe. The case is larger than something you would bring in your pocket, but it could easily fit in a backpack, briefcase or purse. It’s also a convenient way to not get them damaged or lose them.
The most basic pair is $599.99. Prescription lenses do have an extra cost on them for around $200 extra. You can submit this to your insurance company and possibly get a reimbursement for them. There’s also some additional extras like rounded frames, sunglasses and gradient colors. It could end up costing you upwards of $1,200 for some of these extras. Many people spend $600 on a pair of designer regular glasses or sunglasses. The initial base price of $600 for some smart glasses is a reasonable cost and is comparable to many smart watches.
If you are interested in trying them out, you need to book a showing for the Focals at either their Toronto or Brooklyn showroom.They also have a few popup locations around the country at major events and areas via a mobile truck. They are currently not available on Amazon or any other retail store because the small projection screen that appears in the Focals needs to be in the perfect position for your unique face, eyes and ears for optimal results. Even if you try on someone else’s glasses quickly to have a look, you might not have quite as great of an experience because of this unique fit.
When you have your free booking, they will do a very detailed initial set up where they take many pictures of your face. They will provide a hair tie for you to pull all the hair back from your face if you need one. Then you are placed in a large pod like room. There are 11 cameras used to make a thorough 3D image of your head. If you’re interested in Focals, and you are near these locations, I fully recommend having a booking so you can experience some of this technology in real life. You can do that here – https://shop.bynorth.com/showrooms . After they have your images done, they will measure your ring size for the Loop ring. Finally an optometrist will measure your eyes with your existing prescription, if you need the optional prescription.
As I mentioned, I don’t wear glasses full-time anymore but only occasionally when driving or if I’m trying to focus on something quite far away – like a concert. Returning to wearing glasses was a change for me. I found these glasses to be quite heavy. After several hours of wearing them, I was distinctly aware of their on going presence on my nose. I found I could keep them on for an hour or two without issue though. I found that I had to frequently adjust the Focals up and down my nose in order to make sure the picture was clear enough. They said that this was normal and it would take a few weeks of adjusting the alignment to get it perfect. I found it improved, but the up and down push on the nose was still required.The picture is clear in indoor environments but during a bright sunny day it can be harder to see what is happening on the screen as clearly. Using the provided sunglasses help with this, but I found the ‘style’ of the clip ons was not that great. Some of that sexiness was lost here, I hope they improve the clip on style in the future. I felt over time, I wanted them to kind of “do more”. The lack of camera although understandable for privacy reasons, I missed from Google Glass. They currently have kept their API closed, to keep quality control, but that means your favorite apps might not work with them yet. I don’t use Spotify for music, but Google Music so music wasn’t the best fit for me. I enjoy Lyft, not Uber and so on.
The Focals are only meant to be used in short bursts as you go about your day, so I could easily get a full days charge and use out of them. If you keep them going non-stop (like showing them to your friend for the first time) they will heat up a bit. They are not designed to be ‘always on’. I enjoy not having to look down at my watch, but am not sure the practically of switching to glasses, especially if you don’t require wearing them all the time already. I do see a place for people who are tired of head-down tech and want to be more mindful of those around them. The tech is fascinating and I hope to see more apps, developer API opening and additional options available for these glasses in the future.