North, the company behind the Focals AR glasses, has acquired the “technology portfolio” behind another set of AR glasses, the cancelled Intel Vaunt glasses. The company wouldn’t disclose the terms of the deal, but Intel Capital is a major investor in North and led its last financing round in 2016.
Both Focals and Vaunt had the same basic idea: use a tiny laser embedded in the stem of your glasses to project a reflected image directly into your retina. Unlike other AR and VR efforts, the goal is to create a pair of glasses you’d actually want to wear — something that looks relatively normal and doesn’t weigh too much.
Intel struggled to get its glasses out of the lab and on a path to actually becoming available to consumers. Like so many Intel prototypes, it failed to find the right partner to bring the technology to market. Except, well, it just sort of did, in North’s Focals.
Focals have the same basic idea as Vaunt but are actually set to ship to consumers fairly soon. The Canadian company already has a couple of stores where you can select the right style of glasses. But more importantly, you need to get them fitted, North says, because aligning the projector so you can see the image requires that the glasses be adjusted for your face.
Once they’re fitted, as Ashley Carman explained in her story last October, Focals will project an image onto the lens that you can see overlayed on whatever you’re looking at. It’s not a full AR experience that sets digital things on real objects, but the tradeoff is glasses that look halfway normal.
So it makes perfect sense that North is getting the intellectual property and related tech that Intel developed for Vaunt — it has been more successful in (nearly) bringing a product to market. North CEO and co-founder Stephen Lake tells me that his company is acquiring 230 patents or applications along with some “technology and assets,” which will mean the company should have over 650 patents by the end of the year.
Hopefully, it will also begin shipping Focals in that timeframe, but Lake wouldn’t commit to anything beyond saying that the company is “about to start shipping” and that it would happen “very shortly.”
In some ways, North’s Focals are a little more advanced than the Intel Vaunt prototypes I tried back in February. The image it displays is slightly larger and displays in full color instead of Vaunt’s red monochrome. But Intel had some tech that North wanted, Lake tells me that the Vaunt team “did a lot of work in MEMs technology and the optics related to that.” More specifically, Intel seems to have done a lot of work to miniaturize the display system.
Lake says that North is acquiring the patents for future versions of Focals and not to go on a lawsuit spree. “It’s really about a defensive position,” he says. Intel also had done work related to the core interface of using AR glasses. The patents North is acquiring cover “everything from new techniques, user interfaces, to ways to interact with the glasses.”
The Vaunt prototypes I tried used subtle head gestures, but Intel hinted at other control systems. The North Focals use a separate control ring with a tiny joystick. They also will support interactions via Amazon Alexa,
Will lightweight AR glasses do enough?
Even with Intel’s patents, North faces a tough road ahead. There are other, more capable AR systems like HoloLens or Magic Leap — though they are much bigger, much different products. There’s a very big, very open question about whether or not people will want something like Focals, which by necessity are limited in their scope and capabilities, at least compared to the lofty promises we’ve heard about AR in the past couple of years. North says that initially Focals will allow you to “see and respond to texts, get turn-by-turn directions, check the weather, request an Uber, talk to Amazon Alexa, and more.”
One of those limitations is that, for the time being, devices like this are just as much accessories to your phone as they are independent products. That means building a software platform with limited access to the data on your phone and maintaining it separately. Lake says that, of course, the long term vision for Focals is to work independently from your phone. He’s also not worried about competing directly with more robust products just yet. “AR can make for great demos,” Lake says, but he doesn’t think that people are using it in their everyday lives.
If you live near Brooklyn or Toronto, you can go to one of North’s stores to try the Focals out and drop down $999 to order the glasses.
Disclosure: my wife works on the VR app store program at Oculus.