High-tech meets high-fashion: Ontario company may finally win eyewear technology race

High-tech meets high-fashion: Ontario company may finally win eyewear technology race

Are These the Smart Glasses People Will Actually Want to Wear?

Wearable technology, whether it's a smart watch, smart jewelry, or smart glasses, has been a hard sell — especially among more style-conscious consumers. Companies like Google and Snapchat haven't succeeded in building businesses around smart glasses, in part because their designs were difficult to wear without feeling ridiculous. Even attempts by great fashion designers to team up with tech companies on wearables have fallen flat. But Focals, created by a Canadian tech company called North with Amazon as a lead investor, has a new approach.

Thanks for watching!Visit Website"Others have tried and failed to create smart glasses people love because they built a computer to wear on your face and made them glasses as an afterthought," said co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake in a statement. "We did it the other way around. We designed Focals to be glasses first and invented new technology that we could conceal inside."

Samsung files patent for Google Glass-like specsWill humans ever like wearing computers on their faces? Duncan Stewart, the director of research for Technology, Media and Telecommunications with Deloitte Canada, already tested Focals and said he appreciates the "sharp" design, however he is skeptical consumers are ready for digital eyewear.

Thanks for watching!Visit WebsiteADVERTISEMENTThanks for watching!Visit WebsiteWhat's important is that the glasses look normal, like something anyone might consider wearing even if they didn't also allow you to read and respond to texts, navigate to a location, see calendar reminders, check weather, call an Uber and use Amazon Alexa, all without taking your phone out. Though, if you're looking at them from the side, the thick temples might give them away as something more futuristic than a regular pair of eyeglasses.

The sleekly designed notifications and info pop up in your retina, but they look they're about an arm's length in front of you, and only when you want them to. You navigate using a tiny "Loop" joystick worn as a ring and operated with your thumb. You can see it in action in the video above.

From the branding to the website to the frames themselves, Focals is basically what it would look like if Warby Parker decided to debut smart glasses. (It is worth noting that, at one point, there were reports that Google was working with Warby to revamp its Glass.) Instead of simply launching a tech product, North built Focals as its own desirable, direct-to-consumer brand. 

"[Google Glasses were] sort of all bound up in techno-fetishism and the desire to get technology for technology's sake. Now we've really moved past that as citizens and users were much more interested in what technology will provide for us."

As of Monday, it's even opening two showrooms: one in its native Toronto and one in Brooklyn's charming, yuppie-filled Cobble Hill neighborhood (where there is also a Warby Parker). There, shoppers can order and get fit for a custom-built set, choosing from two frame styles — classic or round — and three colorways: black, tortoise and grey fade. The Loop comes in black and copper. They can even have a prescription put into the lenses. A pair costs $999 and while classic, non-prescription frames will ship before the end of the year, round and prescription frames won't ship until early next year.

But unlike like the clunkier models built by other tech companies, the Waterloo technology firm has created high-tech for your eyes that focuses on high-fashion, and is "hidden by design," according to North Inc.'s promotional video.

North invented all of its technology for Focals in-house, but when it came to designing the final version of the frames, the company looked to the eyewear world, not the tech world. Marie Stipancik, North's head of eyewear design, comes from Clearly, a large, well-known online eyewear retailer based in Canada, where she oversaw the design of all private label product. She began working with North over two years ago. "They were tackling a lot of the problems from an engineering perspective, but they understood there was a need for this product to have a fashion consideration, to have a design consideration, and they were kind of lacking from that approach," she tells me over the phone.

Isabel Pedersen, the Canada research chair in Digital Life Media and Culture at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, said society has substantially changed since the first iterations of digital eyewear first came on the market.

Designing Focals obviously differed from creating an everyday pair of glasses because she had to stay within the framework of how the product was built to function, but she also wanted to balance out the futuristic nature of smart glasses with something more timeless. "I really wanted to take inspiration from more nostalgic eyewear silhouettes to create this juxtaposition between this forward-thinking, futuristic technology with silhouettes and color palettes that feel a little bit more inspired by the past," she says.

Stipancik said she looked to films like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Annie Hall" for inspiration. She also wanted the design to counteract the complexity of the technology, which could feel intimidating. "What we wanted to do was make it appear to be very simple and uncomplicated."

Fit was an important piece of making it feel comfortable and easy to wear, hence the need for a bespoke process. "[In eyewear stores today], there's hundreds of different styles on display and you pick and chose different shapes ultimately to find something that fits you," she explains. "We wanted to solve that by offering fewer style options and delivering each one in an assortment of sizes to make sure that anyone walking into our retail spaces could find something that fits them both functionally and aesthetically." Assuming Focals glasses take off, the brand will add additional styles and personalization options in the future.

"Canadians are brilliant and it doesn't even vaguely surprise me that it is possible that a Canadian firm may be one of the ones working on new and interesting wearable technology," Stewart said.  

Stipancik and Focals' co-founders aren't just targeting aesthetically-minded tech people, but also people who want to spend a little less time glued to their phones — a desire many of us can relate to — or use technology while staying hands-free. "We're not trying to capitalize on a trend or a movement," says Stipancik. "We're really trying to solve a problem that people have with technology today in a way that feels very approachable and inclusive and designed around humans."

The eyewear, which retails at roughly $1,000 USD, leverages the "magic" of technology with a hidden holographic display that projects images about an arms length in front of your eyes, Ketcheson said.

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For example, the previous iterations of high-tech glasses had cameras that some consumers would have found "disturbing" the researcher said. However, Focals do not have a camera as part of the lens.

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"Consumers voted with their wallets and with their attention and said, 'We don't like these things for a whole bunch of reasons,' and that's where we are right about now."

BusinessGucci Makes $225 Glasses For Viewing 3-D MoviesWe at least have to give Gucci props for doing something original. Introducing what were pretty sure is the first ever pair of luxury 3-D glasses. 3-D movies are increasing in popularity and people have speculated that, at some point in the future, all movies will be shown in 3-D. And even though movie theaters give you a free pair when you buy your ticket, maybe owning your own 3-D glasses will become a thing. Its more green, like taking tote bags when you go grocery shopping. But, Gucci might be taking this a little too far.

Stewart said it's no surprise a Canadian company could be poised to succeed, though, because Canada continues to be a "magnet" for homegrown and international technology companies.

North, the Amazon-backed wearables company formerly known as Thalmic Labs, has opened its first smart glasses stores.

Google Glasses also seemed to be going after a niche market, whereas Focals are trying to target the mainstream and will customize the eyewear for the individual users fashion.

The outlets, which are located at 178 Court Street in the Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn and at 113 Ossington Ave in Toronto, are the only places where customers can presently finalize their North smart glasses order.

"The customer is a lot more sophisticated when it comes to the idea of wearable technology. Just from what they're doing in their everyday life," said Pedersen.

By way of a brief recap, North, under its former moniker, raised a large $120 million in funding back in 2016 from some big names, including Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Intel Capital. Last month, North announced its $999 Focals holographic smart glasses as the Canadian company rebranded from Thalmic Labs. That news followed shortly after it revealed it was ceasing sales of its first and hitherto only other product, the gesture- and motion-guided Myo armband.

"I found the process of looking [at the digital display] and talking to somebody… and shifting my focus back and forth to be an effort," said Stewart.

Focals feature a built-in holographic display that shows information from your phone, such as messages, weather forecasts, and turn-by-turn directions, directly through the lenses. It also integrates with Alexa, so you can order an Uber, get calendar notifications, and request all manner of information by verbalizing your request.

Now. she said, people are constantly using "wearables" — technologically-advanced gear from watches to fish-eyed cameras strapped to our foreheads.

Though you can reserve your pair of Focals online by paying $100, you will have to visit a brick-and-mortar outlet to complete your purchase given that they are customized to suit the head and eyes of each customer. From 11 a.m. EST today, those in Brooklyn or Toronto can do just that.

Adam Ketcheson, the company's chief marketing officer, said Focals have been designed with just as much emphasis on "aesthetics" as technology.

The store isn’t just for fittings, however — anyone can visit to experience first-hand what the glasses are like, with dedicated “immerse stations” set up to give a glimpse of life inside a holographic world.

There are plans to launch further outlets too, and the company is actively inviting customers to register their interest in having a North showroom opened in their locale. To do so, you will need to pay a $100 deposit, and this will help the company gauge demand and prioritize which markets are next up.

“Brooklyn and Toronto are just the beginning for North,” the company told VentureBeat. “Those that place deposits will be first in line for Focals.”

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