Google is acquiring smart glasses startup North as rumored last week. North will end its support for its Focals by North smart glasses at the end of July and has canceled plans for the Focals 2.0 it was working on for this year.
North started in 2012 as Thalmic Labs but didn’t release its Focals 1.0 until last year. The $600 smart glasses, designed to look like regular glasses, included a holographic lens with one of the larger lenses that displayed information. The glasses act as an extension to a smartphone but have Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built-in. Voice controls and a small joystick on a ring called a Loop, make the smart glasses entirely hands-free. As noted when we reviewed the smart glasses, they look good but feel slightly heavy, and the holographic display was not without flaws.
The acquisition puts an end to the company’s plans for a revamped Focals 2.0 for this year. The next iteration of the smart glasses was to weigh 40% less and have ten times sharper retinal displays. The deal also means the company will no longer provide software support for the smart glasses, pulling the mobile apps from the Apple and Google platforms that make the devices work on July 31. North is offering full refunds to anyone who purchased the smart glasses, but that’s fewer than 1,000 pairs, so it’s a tiny expenditure that may avoid ill-feeling among those early adopters.
It’s improbable that Google will want to take up where North left off in developing a second generation of the Focals. Google’s interest is presumably less for the consumer device built by North and more for the intellectual property and expertise of the staff. North’s portfolio includes a sizable number of patents acquired from Intel in 2018 for canceled Vaunt smart glasses. The companies didn’t reveal any financial details. However, North had raised about $200 million in venture capital funding, so it would have to be a very sizable sale price for the company and its investors to exit ahead financially.
“They’ve built a strong technology foundation, and we’re excited to have North join us in our broader efforts to build helpful devices and services,” Google’s senior vice president of Devices and Services Rick Osterloh said in a blog post about the acquisition. “North’s technical expertise will help as we continue to invest in our hardware efforts and ambient computing future.”
Google Sees the Future
Despite the high-profile collapse of Google’s own Google Glass smart glasses, the concept has started to make a comeback. Amazon debuted Alexa-powered glasses last fall, and Apple is supposed to be working on smart glasses as well as a virtual reality headset. Better technology and more understanding of how to market smart glasses could herald their return. And acquiring North fits with Google’s recent bid for a more significant share of the wearable tech market in general. Last winter, Google bought Fitbit as part of a plan to build a smartwatch product line. Smart glasses may be yet another frontier for competition among voice assistant developers, as much as smart speakers, smart displays, and wireless earbuds have become. Google may be the outlet for North’s technology, giving it more of a chance to draw customers than it did as an independent company.
“Over the last while, it became clear that aligning with Google would significantly advance our shared vision. This acquisition is a terrific fit for North and, importantly, we’re staying here in Kitchener-Waterloo,” North co-founders Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey, and Aaron Grant wrote in a blog post explaining the deal. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to join Google, and to take an exciting next step towards the future we’ve been focused on for the past eight years.”