A Waterloo-based startup with backing from Amazon on Tuesday unveiled a set of souped-up glasses it hopes will propel it to the forefront of the market for wearable augmented reality devices.
Dubbed Focals, the devices resemble a pair of thick-rimmed, black hipster glasses. But with a microphone, a speaker, a battery and a little projector all hidden inside the dark frames, they are anything but ordinary eyewear.
Their creator, Thalmic Labs, is rebranding itself as North as it prepares to open retail outlets in Toronto and Brooklyn to sell the smart glasses.
North is hoping to win the race to build the first augmented reality wearable device, going up against some of the biggest and hottest tech companies in the world. But unlike many of its competitors, North is betting that the best way to introduce the technology is to go slowly and keep the devices as unobtrusive as possible.
To get the fit right, the company needs to put each customer into a little booth where an array of cameras makes a 3D model of their head. The process even involves a consultation with an optometrist.
That means online sales are impossible, and early adopters will need to go to one of these two physical stores, where the product will cost $1,299 in Canada and US$999 in Brooklyn.
While the early capabilities are limited, the glasses do offer a number of functions more typically associated with a smartphone.
They display text notifications right onto one of the lenses, and allow users to dictate replies. They can call an Uber or display turn-by-turn navigation. With Amazon Alexa built-in, the wearer can also ask basic questions, or make simple purchases online.
They have a few more tricks, but the experience of wearing Focals mostly involves text or a very simple interface. Thus far there’s no app store, so third-party developers won’t be able to experiment and create new experiences for users, nor are there integrated augmented reality functions.
“There’s a ton of potential in all of those different areas, and I think in order to get there successfully, you have to be very thoughtful about the path,” North co-founder Aaron Grant said.
“Even if we could, from a technology standpoint, throw all of that into the glasses today, it probably wouldn’t be the right decision, because this is brand new. People aren’t used to this.”
I think in order to get there successfully, you have to be very thoughtful about the path
A lot of people in the tech world — including Grant — are convinced that wearable computers are the future.
In the same way that laptops supplanted desktops, and then smartphones became even more ubiquitous than laptops, lots of tech players expect wearables to drive the next generation of computing devices. And like how the iPhone defined modern smartphones and propelled Apple to a US$1 trillion valuation, the race is on to define the new wearable smart displays of the future.
But thus far, nothing has caught on.
Google Glass was a famously geeky failure, with early adopters dubbed “glassholes” and a host of issues ultimately killing the project.
More recently, Florida-based augmented reality company Magic Leap raised a ton of hype and US$2.3 billion in venture capital from Google and other influential investors, and the company was featured on the cover of Wired Magazine before they ever released a product.
Microsoft has an augmented reality Hololens product too, and there are others vying to win the emerging market.
North’s product is exciting enough for investors that they’ve funded the company to the tune of US$140 million, and Amazon is one of their backers.
They also have a track record, going back to 2013 when they raised $14.5 million in venture capital funding after graduating from the prestigious Y Combinator incubator. At the time, they were developing MYO, a high-tech armband that allowed users to use hand gestures to control a device.
MYO has since been discontinued, and and as they get ready to sell the first pairs of glasses, they’re taking a deliberately cautious, no-hype approach.
“It’s a baby step into an undefined category that doesn’t exist,” chief marketing officer Adam Ketcheson said.
“We’ve been really intentional about the fact that we stayed dark for so many years. We’ve been really intentional about the amount of constraints we’ve put around our engineering team so that we look like a great product.”