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Are These the Smart Glasses People Will Actually Want to Wear?

With a new store in Brooklyn, Amazon-backed brand Focals aims to be seen as glasses first, with technology hidden inside.
Focals round frames in tortoise. Photo: Courtesy of North

Focals round frames in tortoise. Photo: Courtesy of North

Wearable technology, whether it's a smart watch, smart jewelry, or smart glasses, has been a hard sell — especially among more style-conscious consumers. Companies like Google and Snapchat haven't succeeded in building businesses around smart glasses, in part because their designs were difficult to wear without feeling ridiculous. Even attempts by great fashion designers to team up with tech companies on wearables have fallen flat. But Focals, created by a Canadian tech company called North with Amazon as a lead investor, has a new approach.

"Others have tried and failed to create smart glasses people love because they built a computer to wear on your face and made them glasses as an afterthought," said co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake in a statement. "We did it the other way around. We designed Focals to be glasses first and invented new technology that we could conceal inside."

What's important is that the glasses look normal, like something anyone might consider wearing even if they didn't also allow you to read and respond to texts, navigate to a location, see calendar reminders, check weather, call an Uber and use Amazon Alexa, all without taking your phone out. Though, if you're looking at them from the side, the thick temples might give them away as something more futuristic than a regular pair of eyeglasses.

The sleekly designed notifications and info pop up in your retina, but they look they're about an arm's length in front of you, and only when you want them to. You navigate using a tiny "Loop" joystick worn as a ring and operated with your thumb. You can see it in action in the video above.

From the branding to the website to the frames themselves, Focals is basically what it would look like if Warby Parker decided to debut smart glasses. (It is worth noting that, at one point, there were reports that Google was working with Warby to revamp its Glass.) Instead of simply launching a tech product, North built Focals as its own desirable, direct-to-consumer brand. 

As of Monday, it's even opening two showrooms: one in its native Toronto and one in Brooklyn's charming, yuppie-filled Cobble Hill neighborhood (where there is also a Warby Parker). There, shoppers can order and get fit for a custom-built set, choosing from two frame styles — classic or round — and three colorways: black, tortoise and grey fade. The Loop comes in black and copper. They can even have a prescription put into the lenses. A pair costs $999 and while classic, non-prescription frames will ship before the end of the year, round and prescription frames won't ship until early next year.

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Focals classic frames in grey fade, with black Loop. Photo: Courtesy of North

Focals classic frames in grey fade, with black Loop. Photo: Courtesy of North

North invented all of its technology for Focals in-house, but when it came to designing the final version of the frames, the company looked to the eyewear world, not the tech world. Marie Stipancik, North's head of eyewear design, comes from Clearly, a large, well-known online eyewear retailer based in Canada, where she oversaw the design of all private label product. She began working with North over two years ago. "They were tackling a lot of the problems from an engineering perspective, but they understood there was a need for this product to have a fashion consideration, to have a design consideration, and they were kind of lacking from that approach," she tells me over the phone.

Designing Focals obviously differed from creating an everyday pair of glasses because she had to stay within the framework of how the product was built to function, but she also wanted to balance out the futuristic nature of smart glasses with something more timeless. "I really wanted to take inspiration from more nostalgic eyewear silhouettes to create this juxtaposition between this forward-thinking, futuristic technology with silhouettes and color palettes that feel a little bit more inspired by the past," she says.

Stipancik said she looked to films like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Annie Hall" for inspiration. She also wanted the design to counteract the complexity of the technology, which could feel intimidating. "What we wanted to do was make it appear to be very simple and uncomplicated."

Inside North's Brooklyn showroom for Focals. Photo: Courtesy of North

Inside North's Brooklyn showroom for Focals. Photo: Courtesy of North

Fit was an important piece of making it feel comfortable and easy to wear, hence the need for a bespoke process. "[In eyewear stores today], there's hundreds of different styles on display and you pick and chose different shapes ultimately to find something that fits you," she explains. "We wanted to solve that by offering fewer style options and delivering each one in an assortment of sizes to make sure that anyone walking into our retail spaces could find something that fits them both functionally and aesthetically." Assuming Focals glasses take off, the brand will add additional styles and personalization options in the future.

Stipancik and Focals' co-founders aren't just targeting aesthetically-minded tech people, but also people who want to spend a little less time glued to their phones — a desire many of us can relate to — or use technology while staying hands-free. "We're not trying to capitalize on a trend or a movement," says Stipancik. "We're really trying to solve a problem that people have with technology today in a way that feels very approachable and inclusive and designed around humans."

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