Earlier this year, I bought myself a North’s Focal AR glasses, with a discount I received for my participation in Intel Capital’s Global Summit. Today I wanted to share with you my review of the AR glasses, and the main takeaways from my experience with them.
A personalized experience
First, I stopped by the Focals by North trailer at the event to order a pair and have my face scanned for fitting. After about 8 weeks they were ready—the only problem was that North only has permanent stores in NYC and Toronto, and the rest are all popup shops. Thankfully, I was able to coordinate with the North team to have my pair waiting for me for final fitting in New York City. The staff were incredibly helpful and helped me set up my Focals and get them fitted perfectly for my face.
This personalized experience made the Focals feel like a premium device, which honestly it is—it goes for $799 with prescription and $600 without. Nowadays, if you have an iPhone X or newer (Xs or 11) you can scan yourself with the Focals Showroom App and even try them on using AR. This should theoretically allow you to avoid the first step of having your measurements taken in person—you can go straight into fitting once they’re ready. Another nice thing about the Focals is that you can customize them to your own personal color preference (Black, Smoke and Tortoise) and design. There are also different colors of clip-on sunglasses to choose from, making the Focals by North even more inconspicuous. Over the few months I’ve had the Focals, very few people realized I was wearing AR glasses, aside from those who knew what the Focals looked like. That number was zero when I wore the clip-on shades outdoors. While the clip-ons are not necessary, they do make the glasses more enjoyable in sunnier environments. The display brightness is plenty good even in broad daylight, but I prefer to wear sunglasses when I’m in the sun.
I believe that the design of the Focals, or any AR glasses for that matter, is an extremely important point to consider. Because the Focals look so much like regular glasses, they are much more socially acceptable than, say, my Snap Spectacles 3 glasses which I’ve had for a few weeks now. The Spectacles’ design is obnoxious, in my opinion, with two very prominent cameras that make lots of people feel uneasy. I think North was very smart to not put a camera on the Focals for a lot of reasons, but the number one reason, in my book, is privacy and social acceptance. Way more people have asked to try on my Focals than have ever asked to try on the Spectacles, which says something.
The Focals use a single laser projector to fire what looks to be three different colors (RGB) onto a reflective piece of the lens. This creates a very small 1mm eye-box that enters your retina. It’s because of this incredibly small eye-box that North must get your measurements and calibration just right. From what North says, the next generation will have a 20x bigger eye-box and will be a lot better in this regard. The eye-box limitation also means that people can’t just put on my Focals and see what I see, although there are two workaround solutions. I can show people using the mirroring in the app, but I’ve found the best solution is actually for them to wear the Focals while I adjust them until they can see (since I can see where the eye-box should be).
The glasses are controlled by a wearable ring. I like that North opted for this method, rather than touching the glasses on the side. Using a wearable ring with a control stick looks way more natural; most people have no idea I am using the ring to control the glasses until I tell them, which is as it should be. You can also use the ring to activate things like Alexa voice control, which I found to be very useful and enjoyable. That said, I would prefer Google Assistant.
Both the glasses and ring recharge when placed into the provided glasses case, magnetically attaching to the appropriate wireless charging spots. The case itself has its own battery capacity, which allows you to charge the glasses a few times without having to charge the case itself. I like this design—it feels like the most natural way to keep the glasses and peripherals together, safe and charged. The glasses case is a bit chunky compared to a normal glasses case, but it is still relatively portable when you consider its capacity and the fact that it has its own batteries. The case itself recharges via USB type-C. I really shouldn’t have to mention this, but there are still companies (like Snap) that use MicroUSB to recharge their wearables.
While I’ve been using the Focals on and off for the last few months, I have not worn them daily. There are several reasons for this. For one, I am not a daily glasses wearer—I would have to go out of my way to wear these when they don’t do anything for me optically until I activate the ring. Second, they are still a touch heavy compared to my regular sunglasses, and I feel a bit of strain on my face if I wear them for too long (more than 2 or 3 hours). I think that this could potentially be fixed with a bit of a weight rebalance—currently a lot of the weight of the glasses rests on the bridge of my nose. That said, the next generation Focals 2.0 will be 40% slimmer, which should result in some considerable weight reductions. Also, since I don’t wear glasses, I like to clip my sunglasses to my shirt—you cannot do this with the Focals as they don’t completely fold up. I hope this problem is addressed with the next generation.
Admittedly, most of the time that I wear my Focals they are redundant—I also wear an Apple Watch which is paired with my iPhone. That said, the one time I used my Focals without a smartwatch the experience was sublime. I could read my notifications, play and control my music and respond to text messages, all while walking around midtown Manhattan, without ever having to take out my phone. I really only missed my watch for its ability to track my calories burned (and cover the horrific watch tan I’ve already worked up).
Though the amount of applications currently supported by the Focals is limited, one great thing is that they continue to support new apps every week based on what users are requesting. You can currently track your Uber with the Focals, read your OneNote notes for a presentation, check your to-do list with Todoist, check your Twitter, control your music with Spotify and more. Though it’s a work in progress, the glasses already cover a lot of bases when it comes to standard notification capture. North has a partnership with Amazon on Alexa, so the glasses work with Alexa. However, I would really like to see some Google Assistant integration in the future, since that’s my primary smart assistant. It would also be nice if the Focals phone app didn’t reset your account and log you out every time it updated. I want to be able to set it up, log in once and forget about the app.
Coming soon: Focals 2.0
The next generation of Focals, coming in 2020, will sport a 7.5x increase in resolution to the display and have the 20x larger eye box mentioned earlier. The Focals 2.0 will also be dramatically sharper, with new focal depth and more dynamic range. Details on the new generation are still light, but the company posted a teaser video in which the Focals appear to fold like a normal pair of glasses and look to be about as thin. I spoke with the company’s CEO, Stephen Lake, and he told me that owners of the 1st gen Focals will have some sort of upgrade path to the new generation. I think it is important to reward early adopters and loyal fans, so I was glad to hear this. There is a very bright future for North and the Focals, and I’m excited to see what this second generation looks and feels like on my face. With Focals 2.0 coming out in 2020, the company is no longer taking any new orders of the 1st generation. From what we know so far, it looks like it will be worth the wait.
The future of AR
My experience with Focals by North taught me a lot about the future of AR and what does and doesn’t work. I think the team at North got a lot of things right for a first-generation product, but there are still a lot of things that need improving. Nevertheless, I enjoy using my Focals and will continue to wear them as much as I can. I think the ring control is nice, but it would be even better if I could use my smartwatch as well. I think a complete wearable experience, featuring tighter integration between different kinds of wearables is something that someone like Apple will likely strive for in the not-so-distant future. For example, it could tighten the integration between AirPods, for audio and voice controls, and the Watch, for biometric authentication and gesture controls.
Right now, most AR glasses that are considered socially acceptable in public, like the Focals, are displays with simple controllers inside of them, relaying information from a host device like a smartphone. This is mainly due to the limitations of processing technology and batteries. A complete, fully standalone solution right now looks more like Microsoft’s Hololens 2—a vast improvement from Gen 1 Hololens, but nowhere close to being considered an all-day, socially acceptable device quite yet. Right now, these AR glasses are more like wearable smart displays than true augmented reality glasses. I think that North did a much better job than Google did with the Glass. However, the functionality of these glasses is currently close to that of a smartwatch, at about double the price; you really need to consider the redundancy of these two devices.
Eventually, we will get 3D graphics and depth mapping in AR glasses. The nReal Light glasses can do that today, but they are a bit bigger and bulkier and less elegant. I believe nReal also has a lot of challenges ahead, but it has a pretty solid product. Tethering nReal’s Light glasses to a smartphone will likely be the best way to experience mobile AR for the near future—devices like Microsoft’s Hololens and Magic Leap’s ML1 are simply too big for consumers and lack cellular connectivity.
Long term, I believe we will most likely have multiple categories of AR devices: different levels of immersion and performance, which will in turn dictate the final size and shape of the devices. We’re still very early in the days of augmented reality, but Focals by North gives us a pretty good glimpse into what’s possible moving forward. With Apple getting closer to releasing its first headset and companies like Magic Leap preparing the next versions of their AR platforms, we shouldn’t have to wait long to see what’s next.