For all its faults, Google Glass was a pioneering piece of tech. A pair of glasses that could show you text and email notifications in front of your eyes? That could be controlled by voice, showing weather and map information on command? And even take pictures with a carefully controlled blink? That’s the future. Straight out of science fiction.
But, the project obviously didn’t work, because smart glasses have not become mainstream. It’s been six years since Glass was first unveiled, and four years since Google cancelled production—amid bugs, design issues, privacy concerns and the adoption of a new technological insult, ‘glasshole’.
Nevertheless, engineer Stephen Lake was fascinated by the tech, and wondered whether it would be possible to fix the major issues and make a piece of wearable technology that people actually wanted to wear. Jitesh Ubrani, a senior researcher at IDC, told Wired how essential this is: When a piece of technology is on your face and not under your sleeve, “Fashion and design are key”.
Lake realised the big issue with Glass was that the wearer felt self-conscious in public, uncomfortable with in the obviously futuristic gear—particularly when reaching up to control the tech through a touchpad on the side of the glasses.
So, at Thalmic Labs, the company he co-founded alongside Aaron Grant and Matt Bailey, he spent four years and received more than $100 million in funding to develop a new type of smart glasses. The company re-branded as North and has produced Focals, inverting the traditional smart glasses design by displaying notifications through a tiny holographic projection system, rather than a micro-LED in front of people’s eyes.
The glasses connect to a smartphone app and can be controlled by Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa. The Google Glass side-of-head touchpad is replaced by a ring and tiny joystick, designed to be controlled by the thumb, to use when selecting quick message responses or dismissing notifications.
They also look more like glasses—there is a thick frame, which houses the necessary tech, but the design is curved like regular glasses, not flat. Tortoise shell colours are available, and recent announcements have revealed that the glasses are becoming more sophisticated, being able to see track titles and skip songs on Spotify.
In a review, Wired says the biggest issue is the price. The glasses are as—or even more—expensive than many smartphone models. Focals have to be fitted in person and cost $999.
But, the magazine adds that the glasses are the best smart glasses to have ever existed, and that their greatest utility “may be a simple one”: telling the time.