Google Buys North Smart Glasses and North Then Kills Its Smart Glasses

RIP Focals 2.0. You never saw the light of day, but were cool in theory.
RIP Focals 2.0. You never saw the light of day, but were cool in theory.
Image: North

Last Friday, it was reported that Canadian smart glasses startup North was on the verge of being snapped up by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Today, it’s official.

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North announced the acquisition on both Twitter and in an official blog. Details regarding the terms of the sale were scant, though a Globe and Mail scoop from Friday put the number at around $180 million. North’s remaining staff will, however, be staying in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada and joining a Google team also based there.

“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,” wrote North co-founders Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey, and Aaron Grant in the blog.

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In recent years, Focals by North was probably the most viable consumer options for smart glasses, with a not-too-dorky design and decent functionality. However, it was held back by limited apps, finicky customized fitting process, and an expensive price tag of $600 (which was discounted just a few weeks after launch from an original price of $1,000.) This past December, North announced it was ending Focals 1.0 and would be gearing up to launch a 2.0 version of the product.

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Well, it looks like with the acquisition, we’ll never know if a Focals 2.0 would’ve fixed the problems of the original. North’s blog says the company will not only be winding down Focals 1.0, but that the Focals 2.0 will not ship. At the end of the blog, North provides an email for refund requests, and notes that customer support will continue through the end of 2020. And, if Twitter is any indication, refund emails to existing North customers have already begun hitting inboxes.

So does this signal a shift back toward consumer smart glasses for Google? It’s far too early to say, though a case can be made either way. On the one hand, I spoke with Jay Kothari, project lead for Glass at X, for a Gizmodo series on smart glasses last year. When asked if Google would ever shift back to the consumer space, Kothari emphasized that his team’s focus was on the enterprise space. By acquiring North, it doesn’t necessarily mean consumer smart glasses are back on the table. North’s impressive talent and tech could very easily be used to bolster the Glass Enterprise Edition 2, which launched in May 2019. Not to mention, Google Glass was a bit of a disaster when it launched, resulting in the term “glassholes” to describe insufferable users.

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That said, a few months later at Made by Google 2019, Google clearly indicated a renewed interest in something it terms “ambient computing.” In short, it’s what Google envisions as a seamless technological future where your devices work together and fade into the background. Basically, smart home and wearables. That tracked with Google’s renewed interest in smartwatch tech, as well as Google’s pending acquisition of Fitbit late last year. Unsurprisingly, ambient computing pops up yet again in Google’s blog announcing the North acquisition. (Google declined to comment for this story.)

“Today we’re announcing that Google has acquired North, a pioneer in human computer interfaces and smart glasses. 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 Rich Osterloh, senior vice president of devices and services, wrote in the blog. “North’s technical expertise will help as we continue to invest in our hardware efforts and ambient computing future.”

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Meanwhile, other smart glasses and AR headset makers have floundered recently, with Bose shutting down its Bose AR division and Magic Leap laying off half its workforce in April before shifting to an enterprise-first strategy. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Google might decide to dip it’s toe back into this space—after all, Google Glass was the very pair of smart glasses that kicked everything off. It might also be a move geared at giving Apple, which is rumored to be launching its own pair of AR glasses in 2023, a run for its money.

Either way, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Know something about Google acquiring North and its future plans, or are you affected by the shuttering of North? You can send a tip to vsong@gmail.com, DM me on Twitter (@vicmsong) for Signal, or contact us anonymously via SecureDrop.

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