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North Demos Smart Glasses

These $1,000 smart glasses tell you the weather, read text messages and connect to Alexa

Google and Intel made smart glasses — Google Glass and Vaunt — but neither product took off with consumers.
Now, a start-up called North, formally Thalmic Labs, is introducing a pair of smart glasses that it thinks will appeal to the masses because the design looks so similar to normal glasses.
The $1,000 glasses are called Focals, and the company said they will ship later this year.
Focals connect to your phone via Bluetooth and have a small projector that beams data into the wearer's eyes. They can tell the wearer the weather or time, read text messages and even order an Uber. The glasses are also connected to Alexa, so if you can ask them for directions or information, a small speaker will tell you the answers.
North has raised over $140 million from investors including the Amazon Alexa Fund, Spark Capital, Intel Capital and Y Combinator.

Although few people seem to really want to wear smart glasses or goggles — think Google Glass or Snapchat Spectacles — a startup thinks it’s figured out the recipe to augmented reality success. North, which just rebranded from Thalmic Labs, is launching its first product today, called Focals, with the goal of starting a bunch of Warby Parker-esque stores that’ll sell lots of connected glasses. It’s trying to create the first pair of “everyday smart glasses.”
When I meet Stephen Lake, CEO of North, at the company’s new Brooklyn, New York store last week, which was still under construction, he’s wearing Focals. I immediately scan his face to figure out where the display is and settle on a little spot on the right lens of his glasses that looks like a smudge. The photopolymer material that serves as the display location isn’t noticeable for the most part, but when it catches the light, it looks like the glasses need to be wiped down.
Each Focals pair features a tiny, color laser in the right arm that displays information from your phone over Bluetooth. That laser bounces off a piece of photopolymer material built into the glasses’ right lens, then heads into your eye. It creates a 15-degree viewing area that’s about 300 x 300 pixels.
A laser being projected into my retina sounds like a futuristic thing, for sure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more companies start exploring this space. It’s at least more pleasant than staring at an extremely bright display all day. 


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).
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.
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.”