I’ve long been an enthusiast of augmented reality headsets and, as early as the tech still is, I believe that AR will truly take off when we have head-mounted devices that find the right balance of usefulness and style. The balance between functionality and wearability is a long-standing struggle for AR manufacturers, but now a new player is on the market: Focals by North.
North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs, is the company behind the hackathon favourite Myo armband, and founder Stephen Lake is known in the Canadian tech startup scene to be a wunderkind hardware founder. The company’s pivot into smart glasses got everyone’s attention earlier this year, so I was thrilled to be invited to come to their Toronto showroom to get fitted for my own pair of Focals.
Because Focals rely on very precise measurements to create a sharp image, users have to be sized for their frames. The process began with a 3D scan of my head, wearing this flattering measuring instrument to get it just right:
Then we calibrated my gaze so the hologram will appear in the right spot in my line of sight.
This part of the process feels reminiscent of Black Mirror – “we like to think of it more as white glass,” says my Focals rep, Chloe – it’s very surreal to be going in to a sterile white booth to have my head 3D scanned so I can get notifications projected into my vision. I’m impressed before I even try on a pair of Focals; they’ve done a great job of making the fitting process a futuristic experience that any nerd will bask in.
While the model was being generated, I was also sized for the Loop, the mini joystick controller that you wear like a ring on your index finger.
Once we’d found my fit, Chloe brought out a demo kit for me to try. So far, the Focals offer basic interactive functionality including text messages, walking directions, calendar, and weather, and can do some more sophisticated things when hooked up to Amazon Alexa, like ordering an Uber. It took me a few minutes to calibrate the demo device to my eyeline (it was presumably created for someone else’s similarly-dimensioned 3D head), but once I had set it up I was able to walk around the showroom and interact with the device very intuitively.
It’s simple, but honestly, that’s part of the appeal. It doesn’t have the useless bells and whistles that Google Glass had, and it doesn’t try to pack in unnecessary features at the expense of wearability. And they aren’t noticeably heavier than my computer glasses, so I can see myself wearing these regularly.
The frames are available in three colours, and come with a choice of gold- or black-rimmed clip-on shades for outdoor use. I chose tortoiseshell frames and the black shades.
All in all the appointment itself (without all my picture-taking) took about half an hour, and I should have my next appointment in 8-10 weeks to get the frames tweaked and take them home (at which point I shall promptly report back with my review). The glasses retail for $999 USD and, as of January 2019, can currently be purchased exclusively at North showrooms in Toronto and Brooklyn.
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