“Out of order” read a sign taped to a bathroom door for weeks before anyone found out the space had been secretly improvised into a testing lab for a revolutionary product. Years later, Velocity alumni company North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs, has just launched its first smart glasses, Focals. The product aims to be the first pair of “everyday smart glasses” to capture consumer’s imagination. The product will be sold exclusively at North’s retail outlet in Toronto and New York City.
The rebrand to North perfectly matches the feel of the new product, which focuses on the merging of technology, fashion and user experience to make a pair of smart glasses that look and feel like real glasses. Where others have failed to build smart glasses people love because they started with function and fought back to form, Focals are built to be useful rather than overwhelming (think your phone’s incessant notifications). It is made with premium materials used in eyewear while offering prescription lenses that are personally customized to each customer. But the secret sauce to it all? Velocity.
“We started with scrappy roots at Velocity making circuit boards in the bathrooms, it’s been a wild journey since then. We couldn’t be prouder to kick-off an entirely new category of digital experiences for the world,” says Stephen Lake, co-founder of North.
Focals truly seem like a product from the future, but this futuristic tech and the company that created it has a past that should be familiar to anyone who follows the Waterloo tech scene. Then named Thalmic Labs, the company first found its footing in the Velocity Garage in 2012, with the development of the Myo armband, a wearable device that allows a user to perform hand gestures to control computers, smartphones, and other hardware.
While at Velocity, Thalmic Labs generated more than $4 million in pre-orders, raised over $15 million in funding, and grew their staff to over 25 employees. The Thalmic Labs team developed entirely new gesture recognition technology for the Myo, which spread to over 150 countries, and found innovative uses across diverse teams. Researchers have even used the Myo to help amputees gain control of their prosthetic limbs, and to translate sign language. The momentum created led the company to receive funding of $120M USD in Series B funding led by Intel Capital, The Amazon Alexa Fund, and Fidelity Investments Canada. Focals was not just launched yesterday with rebranding and strong funding, the team seemed to have taken in lessons from the setback experienced by Intel (with Vaunt) and Google (with Glass). Moreover, a lot of the technologies were built and invented locally in the Waterloo Region.
The Focals interface feels immediate and glanceable, but also minimalistic. It doesn’t take over what the wearer is seeing or the world around them, resulting in augmented reality experiences that are intuitive and simple.
Instead of looking at your phone to carry out tasks such as checking notifications, getting directions, or ordering an Uber, the custom-made Focals present useful information through a holographic display built into the lenses that only the wearer can see, using Bluetooth paired with an iPhone or an Android phone.
The wearer controls the glasses through a finger-worn ring called Loop. Interactions are designed to get you to what’s important, then back to what’s in front of us, as quickly as possible. Each use lasts between 5-15 seconds, built to fit into those little moments we have as we walk to the elevator, head out the door, or wait for a coffee, etc.
This may be precisely what this new wearable category demands today: technology that is so simple that it is almost invisible.
As North continues to work on future generations of this product, the company is poised to become the leader of an entirely new category. Focals has the potential to change how we see and interact with our world. Focals may prove that world changing technology from Waterloo Region is possible when we look back 5 to 10 years from yesterday.