REVIEW: FOCALS SMART GLASSES BY NORTH
Peer through these custom-fitted smart glasses and you can almost see the future.
- WIREDFinally, smart glasses that look almost like real, if slightly thick, eyeglasses. Custom design and fitting process ensures the display is aligned with your eyes. Works with Alexa. Solid battery life.
- TIREDThick arms and wide frames means they don’t look exactly like regular glasses. Heavy and slightly uncomfortable to wear for long stretches. The Focals messaging experience on iOS is unwieldy; navigation app doesn’t offer enough context to be useful.
ONE NIGHT RECENTLY I dreamed I was thumbing the little microcontroller for my smart glasses. It’s not the first time technology had seeped from my everyday life into my subconscious mind. There was that time I dreamed up a giant Motorola smartwatch with a kickstand, and the time Justin Bieber pitched me on a new peer-to-peer payments app. But this controller, a tiny joystick on a thick loop around my forefinger, was so satisfying. So addictive. I couldn’t stop playing with it, like a pimple that’s ready to pop.
The controller is an accessory to a new pair of smart glasses called Focals. They’re made by North, a Canadian startup. As the story goes, North’s founders gave Google Glass a go back in the day, tried rigging the head-up display to work with a gesture-based armband they themselves had built, and then determined they could make better glasses. Armed with over $100 million in funding from Intel Capital and Amazon’s Alexa Fund, North toiled for four years to build Focals.
North’s focus was twofold: First, design and make their own miniaturized components, and second, release a pair of smart glasses to the world that actually look like glasses. And the Focals are tantalizingly close to that. But they also cost $999 and require custom fitting at one of the company’s temporary stores in Brooklyn, Toronto, or wherever their newly launched mobile pop-up might appear. And then there’s the whole experience of wearing them, which I did, and then didn’t, and then did again; all the while peering through the lenses for glimpses of the future.
The first time I wore Focals, one of my WIRED editors said he hated the future.
Specifically, he said he hated a future in which he’s chatting with a coworker and she’s getting notifications about the Golden Globes in front of her eyeballs. We were in a cab on our way to a press event at CES, the annual consumer electronics fest in Las Vegas, and he might not have noticed I was wearing smart glasses had I not said something.
Long hair does wonders to hide the thick arms of the Focals. Even if they’re not obscured, the Focals look distinctly less cyborg-like than other smart glasses on the market (which is still mostly limited to techno-optimist societies). While the arms of the Focals are made of aluminum, most of the product is made with nylon thermoplastic, which is very similar to the acetate that’s used in so many pairs of eyeglasses. The ones I’ve been wearing have a classic silhouette and a tortoiseshell frame.
There are other parts of Focals that give them away as smart specs. There’s the projector squeezed into the right arm, the orb that glows on the right lens, the chunky black ring you need to wear to scroll through the information that’s beamed into your eyes. (One of the learnings the Focals creators took away from Google Glass: They didn’t like the experience of having to reach up and touch a swipe pad.) But while I was wearing Focals, not everyone noticed them, which is to say not everyone noticed they were smart glasses. North gets kudos for that.
There’s a lot of technology that goes into making these smart glasses smart. But the more important question for a lot of would-be wearers: Why? Why do I need smart glasses? What do they do, exactly?
The Eyes Have It
Most smart glasses are called as much because they transfer some of the experience you’d have on another computing device—a smartphone, a PC—onto a display in front of your face. Many are labeled “AR glasses,” but each pair augments the world in front of you to varying degrees. Focals are not designed to project an NBA game (like Magic Leap’s One) or to run Autodesk apps (like Microsoft’s HoloLens head-up display) on your face. Instead, Focals are supposed to mirror the notifications you’d get on your phone, with some voice control and navigation applications thrown in for extra utility.
Also, these don’t have a built-in camera (like Snap’s Spectacles). This is the number one question people have asked when I’ve revealed that I’ve been wearing smart glasses. Focals do have a microphone, though, so you can talk to Alexa.
THE WIRED GUIDE TO VIRTUAL REALITY
The Focals experience is largely powered by your smartphone. They pair over Bluetooth with both iOS and Android phones. If a text message comes through on your phone, it will be shown on your Focals display. Same with an incoming phone call. If you get a notification from Apple News on iOS, it will show up on your Focals.
The accompanying ring, called the Loop, is what allows you to clear those notifications, to scroll from page to page, to respond to texts with shortcut responses or voice-dictated messages. When you wake up your Focals or select a menu option using the Loop’s tiny nub of a joystick, you hear a delightful click in your ear. The Loop is what I dreamed about. While I was wearing Focals, I couldn’t stop fiddling with the Loop on my forefinger. It is kind of ugly, and insanely satisfying to use, in the way body-focused repetitive behaviors can be.
While I was at CES, I realized that Focals’ killer app might just be its simplest: Telling the time. One quick push on the joystick would show the date and the time of day. It’s a useful thing to have in front of you while you’re at a massive conference, trying to make it to your meetings on time. I also saw news app notifications and, for better or worse, text message notifications. I say “for better or worse” because a group thread with friends about Kohler’s new smart toilet quickly devolved into an ongoing conversation about poop, and I couldn’t avoid it. (“Too bad you didn’t get that scoop, Lauren.”) Fortunately, the Focals only show text, not multimedia messages.
There are two voice-control protocols built into Focals: a homegrown one that lets you respond to text messages, and Amazon’s Alexa. If you long-press on the Loop joystick, you’ll summon Alexa, though it’s a version of the virtual assistant that’s tailored to smart glasses. For example, you can’t ask it to stream music, but you can ask it for factoids. Like “What time is it in Germany?” which is one of the things I asked my glasses before I made a phone call last week. You can ask Alexa for the weather, but that information is available as visual imagery on the glasses as well.
I also used the Focals’ built-in navigation feature, which relies on data from Mapbox and Foursquare and is designed for walking navigation. If the Focals detect that you’re driving, the glasses are disabled. You can get around this by indicating that you’re a passenger, but the company is careful to say that these are not meant to be used while driving. Anyway, when it comes to the walking navigation, I found it lacking. It was a series of sparse commands —walk 200 feet, turn left here—and I ended up using my phone again after a few minutes. In fairness, there is only so much information you can fit on a small head-up display.
When North was designing the glasses, the team was determined not to build something with fixed, flat lenses and an LED micro-projector. Flat glasses, they say, are obviously not “real” eyeglasses; plus, you need a curvature of the lens in order to offer prescription lenses, which North says are in the works. So North built its own micro-projector, which sits in the right arm of the glasses, and created a “holographic” film that goes inside the right lens. The projector spits out rays of light, which bounce off the thin film in the lens and go directly into your eye, which is how you see the visual imagery on Focals.
The result is a flat, 2D image that appears in front of your eyes, somewhere around the left shoulder of the person you might be talking to. It’s not volumetric in any way. You can’t walk up to the imagery, walk around it, manipulate it. But as basic as the Focals graphics are, they are surprisingly crisp.
The fact that each pair of glasses is custom-fitted helps. Wearable technology is a personal thing, and it’s a very real challenge to make a one-size-fits-all product. North requires Focals customers to sit for 3D scans in its stores and then pick up the glasses in person to have them adjusted. I was able to do this when I was in New York City over the holidays, and then company representatives heated and shaped the glasses for me when I met with them at CES. But this process severely limits the potential customer base for Focals.
As convenient as it was to reply to text messages without having to look at my phone, many of my text message exchanges were broken by Focals. This is largely because I had the glasses paired with an iPhone, and iOS has restrictions around how Messages are used by third-party apps. In order for North to craft and send a shortcut response to your Messages, it has to suck up a copy of the message into its servers (the company claims these are anonymized and encrypted) and send them back as an SMS. So every time I responded to an incoming text message through Focals, it created a new SMS thread in my Messages inbox. To make things even more awkward, each new SMS thread started with “Hey, it’s Lauren Goode. I’m messaging you from my Focals by North.”
The battery life on the glasses is expected to be around 16 hours on a single charge, and the Loop’s battery should last a few days. A lot of this depends on how intensively you use the Focals. The first time I wore them, they didn’t last 16 hours. They lasted through Sunday evening, a few hours on Monday morning, and another few hours on Tuesday morning before I got a low battery alert at 11:15 am. The case for the glasses doubles as a charging pod, which means you could, in theory, not have to worry about battery life if you plop them into the case each night. The case, however, is bulky as hell. It’s about the size (but not the weight) of a brick.
Wearing smart glasses doesn’t just spark questions about how long the battery lasts, or how your glasses handle iOS messaging, or what questions you absolutely can’t ask Alexa. Wearing smart glasses raises critical questions about how technology fits into our everyday lives, and whether we’re opening ourselves to the natural evolution of technology or trying really darn hard to shoehorn it in. Smart glasses sit on our faces; they are literally bumping up against our humanity.
At times when I was wearing Focals, I would look down—at a book, at my notes, at another darn screen—and the glasses would slip precariously down my nose. Custom-fitting didn’t help so much there. Other times I would look up and there would be some notification I was happy to see. Or, you know, just the time of day.
I cannot say with a good conscience that a person should fly to New York City or Toronto and spend $1,000 on a pair of Focals. But if you were already considering it—if you’ve already done it!—then know that you might be able to wear them and not have people call you out for wearing smart glasses. That you might find their greatest utility to be a simple one. And that you might get the urge to take them off before the day is over, because they’ll feel heavy after awhile.
Bottom line: Focals don’t fulfill the ultimate smart-glasses dream, but they come closer than anything I’ve worn yet.