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Are Focal co-founded by N36'er Stephen Lake the smart glasses you'll finally want to wear?

Oct 23, 2018

STEPHEN LAKE WAS never much of a fan of Google Glass.

Shortly after his startup Thalmic Labs announced Myo, a gesture-control armband, in 2013, Lake and his co-founders, Matt Bailey and Aaron Grant, began to mess around with an early version of Google Glass. They tried pairing the smart glasses with the armband, seeing if there was a way to make the two work in concert. Instead of reaching up to swipe at the touchpad on the side of the glasses, you could gesture with your arm to respond to a notification that appeared before your right eye on Google Glass.

Lake and his team tinkered with other early prototypes of smart glasses, too, hoping to come up with some kind of interaction that flicked at the future of computing. The problem, they found, wasn’t in the communication method between human and lenses. The problem was that smart glasses freaked people out. They had overtly angular designs, obvious optical displays, or worse, built-in cameras.

“We tried to wear them in public,” Lake told me over the phone, in the months leading up to the launch of his newest product. “Matt and I actually tried to force ourselves to wear them out for a whole day, and we felt self-conscious. People were staring, and we didn’t really want to wear them.”

“So if we felt that way as early tech adopters,” Lake continued, “Then what did that mean for consumers?”

The following year, Lake, the company's CEO, decided to wipe the slate clean. Thalmic's next big product would be smart glasses that people would actually want to wear. They would be designed first as glasses, and secondarily as a tech product. Thalmic completely shifted its strategy, laying off some employees who had been working on the Myo armband in the process.

Four years and $140 million in funding later, the company is launching its answer to Google Glass. They’re called Focals, and they work with Alexa, Amazon’s popular voice assistant. The Focals are part of an insanely ambitious plan to launch a custom-made, smart eyewear product that’s only sold through the company’s own boutiques. The armband-startup-turned-smart-glasses-company is trying to be a brick-and-mortar retailer, as well.

Thalmic has also rebranded itself. It’s now called North—named so partly because the Waterloo, Ontario-based company is situated well north of Silicon Valley, which the founders believe give them a different perspective than other companies with face-computer aspirations. The other reason for going with the name North is equally as optimistic: Lake considers the human experience, and not technology, to be the company’s “north star.”

THE FIRST TIME Lake walked into WIRED’s office, back in June, he was wearing an early version of the Focals. I identified them right away as something other than fashion eyewear, maybe because I was especially attuned to his glasses—or maybe because the arms of the glasses are thick. When the light hit the right lens just right, I could see a blue orb glowing in the lens. This, it turns out, is the holographic element of the Focals.

'We wanted to take inspiration from silhouettes that are in some ways nostalgic.'
- MARIE STIPANCIK, NORTH’S HEAD OF EYEWEAR DESIGN

I tried on a stock pair of the Focals myself that day, and walked away feeling slightly disappointed. They were wide-framed and heavy, with unfinished software. Everytime I blinked, my eyelashes cut across the projector embedded on the right side of the frames, which interrupted the holographic image in front of me.

This kind of experience is typical with prototypes. But my first Focals try-on underscored how challenging it is to make tech that you wear on your face, as opposed to something you hold in you hand, browse from the couch, or stick on your kitchen counter. If the company planned to make smart glasses that worked for everyone—or at least for more people than a small group of engineers—they still had a ways to go.

The second time Lake stopped by, he brought along Marie Stipancik, North’s head of eyewear design, and Ian Spence, a support specialist. This was just a week before the Focals would become available for pre-order, and things had to be just right. Lake was obviously wearing his Focals, but it was several minutes before I realized that Stipancik was also wearing a pair. Hers were round, tortoise shell frames, and her hairstyle hugged the sides of her face in such a way that the sides of the glasses weren’t visible. From the front, they looked...like glasses. Stylish ones.

“Tech can be intimidating, I think,” Stipancik says. “We wanted to take inspiration from silhouettes that are in some ways nostalgic.” At launch, Focals will ship in a classic square shape, but the round frames she wears are on the roadmap for next year.

The arms of the glasses are made of die-cast, matte finish aluminum. The rest of the frames are made of a premium nylon thermoplastic. This looks similar to acetate, another kind of plastic that’s often used in eyewear, but it holds up to heat better than acetate. The last thing you’d want in glasses packed full of technology was for them to bend, Stipancik explained.

The arms are still the most inelegant part of the Focals, but that’s where most of the magic happens. Lake and his team wanted to avoid putting a little micro-LED in front of people’s eyes, a technique that other smart glass makers have employed. Instead, they wanted to use direct holographic projection technology. They consulted with a company that makes pico projectors, hoping to outsource some of the manufacturing, but according to Lake, the pico manufacturer told them it was impossible to make a projector as tiny as he wanted. North decided to make it themselves.

This custom-built projector sits on the right inner arm of the glasses. It projects light onto the right lens, where it bounces off and is reflected back into your eye. The right lens has a photopolymer film inside it, which makes the light reflect in a precise way; this is the “holographic" element. One of the challenges with this approach, Lake said, is making this light refraction work with curved lenses. Flat glasses are a dead giveaway for nerdy smart glasses (or, maybe the cheap kind you get in swag bags).

'You want it to be discreet and not go against social norms, and a touchpad on the side of your face is completely counter to that.'
- STEPHEN LAKE, CO-FOUNDER OF NORTH

Real glasses, on the other hand, have a curve to them. And if you plan to sell prescription lenses—which North plans to do next year—you need to design for curved lenses.

“We had to create a whole process for molding the lenses right around the holographic materials,” Lake says. “We curve the hologram first, and then correct the distortion, and then cast a prescription around that.” Another consideration is the battery, which accounts for a good portion of the weight of the glasses. Lake said wearers can expect up to 18 hours on a charge.

The accompanying ring lasts three days on a charge. This ring is North’s solution to replace a touch-sensitive swipe panel on the glasses. Swiping and swatting at the side of your face is weird, Lake says. “You want it to be discreet and not go against social norms, and a touchpad on the side of your face is completely counter to that.”

So they designed a ring, a chunky thing made of a combination of stainless steel and thermoplastic, that pairs with your glasses. It comes in 10 sizes, ranging from 5 to 15. It has a tiny joystick. It’s supposed to go on your forefinger. You control the little nub with your neighboring thumb. This nub is the thing that will allow you to look a co-worker directly in the eye and nod as though you’re listening to him while you’re actually sending an emoji via a text messaging app.

Focals run on the company’s custom software, built on top of Android. The software interface is simple, almost primitive, in its early stages. Download the Focals app and pair it with your glasses to see the weather, receive and respond to text messages, view your calendar appointments, and call an Uber. Another feature, called Go, relies on maps from Foursquare to either guide you to a specific location, or create a walking experience based on nearby points of interest. You navigate all of this by nudging and pressing on the tiny joystick on the ring.

You can also use Alexa. Long-pressing on the joystick summons Alexa, which hears your voice commands and responds to you through the glasses. The speaker and microphone are built into the right arm of the Focals, along with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. You can ask Alexa on Focals to do nearly anything that the virtual assistant can do on another Alexa-equipped devices, except it won’t play long strings of audio, and it won’t show you videos.

My second experience trying on Focals was dramatically different from the first. The glasses still weren’t custom-fit to my face, so I sometimes felt cross-eyed while I tried to focus on the floating interface. And as much as North refers to the light reflection as a hologram, there isn't any volume or depth to the image being projected into your eye. It's a flat image, one that lands somewhere between the chin and the shoulder of a person you might be talking to.

But I started to get a better sense of what North hopes to accomplish with these anti-smart-glasses glasses. The tiny joystick was strangely satisfying to use, and each selection with the joystick is accompanied by a delightful little click in your ear. I had the sense that I could probably get away with responding to a text or dismissing a notification while still looking interested in a meeting.

Then Lake told me that Focals cost $999 a pair and can only be purchased at the company’s two physical retail locations, in Toronto and Brooklyn, NY. This is so the company can guarantee the best possible fit and experience. North may want to create something much more accessible than the smart glasses Silicon Valley companies have produced so far, but to start, it sure isn’t opening itself up beyond a crowd of early enthusiasts in two specific geographies.

FOR ALL OF Lake’s quibbles with Google Glass, Google was one of the pioneers in leveraging mobile technology to present information directly in front of our eyes. Its cost was prohibitive, its design distinctly cyborg, and it unnerved people in bars. Early adopters who wore them were labeled “glassholes.”

But the concept of allowing people to view bits of digital information with a quick glance, rather than pulling a glass slab out of their pocket and staring down into the vortex? That remains a powerful one. It’s as if Google knew early on that its very own mobile platform would become so addictive that we’d have to rely on other technology to somehow keep us more engaged with the world around us.

The problem is that the road to smart glass success, so far, has been littered with all kinds of failed or nearly-failed experiments. The products that have managed to capture some of the public’s attention are usually aimed at very specific customers, like heads-up displays for drone-flyers or athletes. Google Glass somehow lives on, but in areas like manufacturing and healthcare, not the broader consumer market. Intel showed off a somewhat promising pair of smart glasses earlier this year. They looked just like glasses, worked with Alexa, and used a low-power laser to beam images directly into your retina. Two months later, Intel shuttered the division that had been working on the smart glasses project.

Snap’s Spectacles are designed for a specific audience—young-ish Snapchat users—but to call those “smart glasses” is a stretch, since they capture video and stills but don’t display information from a smartphone or run any standalone apps. Microsoft’s HoloLens is perhaps the most complete example of a “computer on your face,” since the standalone AR headset runs full Windows 10. But that’s a giant headset that won’t be mistaken for fashion glasses anytime soon.

Somewhere in the in between, North thinks there’s a market for regular glasses that just happen to have tech smarts in them. And they might be right, but the same roadblocks still exist: comfort, cost, access.

“When it comes to wearables, fashion and design take priority, especially when it’s something you have to wear on your face as opposed to under a sleeve,” said Jitesh Ubrani, a senior researcher at IDC who focuses on the wearable tech market. “Outside of design, the story around content and services is also important. But another challenge faced by any company is price and distribution. Regardless of the features built into the glasses, it’s inevitable they’ll be tied to a smartphone in some way and because of that, the price of the glasses has to be relatively low.”

In other words, it’s really tall ask for customers to pay $999 for a pair of smart glasses when high-end smartphones are now pushing the $1,000 mark as well.

Not surprisingly, some of North’s backers are bullish on Focals. Paul Bernard, a director at the Amazon Alexa Fund, which contributed to North’s significant funding, said he believes North has brought together all the pieces of smart technology in such a way that it could be part of a next-generation computing platform.

“When we met with Stephen, there were two things that became clear,” Bernard said in a phone interview with WIRED. “First, they have the potential to make heads-up computing approachable, because of their optical technologies, miniaturization of electronics, and vision of voice as a key part of the interface. And, frankly, I think Stephen himself stands out as a secret weapon. What he built with a small team in a relatively short period of time is just impressive.”

The truth is this: Every smart glasses maker has suggested it could be the next-generation computing platform, and if not be it, then at least augment it in some way. So far, that hasn’t happened. But this is also true: We are a modern society obsessed with looking down, and some technologists are still hopeful that smart glasses can help us look up more. Lake is one of those technologists.

“One the one hand we live in a world now where you can call a car with the tap of a button,” Lake says. “But a more dystopian view is that we’re getting pulled away more and more, spending more time looking at our screens, less time in the real world.”

As Lake was speaking to me, I thought I saw him look just beyond my left shoulder, into the hologram that was floating in front of his right eye. But it was a barely perceptible flicker.


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