Google returns to smart glasses with North acquisition

By Lucy Ingham

Google has announced that it has acquired smart glasses company North, in what appears to be a return to the space following the failed Google Glass project.

The acquisition, which has been made for an undisclosed amount, will see Canada-based North join Google’s Devices & Services team at the Kitchener-Waterloo Google office, close to where the company is already based.

Exactly how Google plans to incorporate North remains to be seen, however North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs, is winding down support for its Focals 1.0 smart glasses and will not be shipping its second-generation Focals 2.0, which had been expected to release later this year.

Google, meanwhile, has been vague but positive about what the North acquisition will mean for its smart glasses offering. In an announcement of the acquisition, Rich Osterloh, senior vice president, Devices & Services at Google, said that the company would join “broader efforts to build helpful devices and services”.

“We’re building towards a future where helpfulness is all around you, where all your devices just work together and technology fades into the background. We call this ambient computing,” he said.

“North’s technical expertise will help as we continue to invest in our hardware efforts and ambient computing future.”

Google North acquisition: The return of Google Glass?

The acquisition of North strongly suggests that Google is ready to return to the consumer smart glasses space, five years after it stopped selling the consumer version of its Google Glass product.

Originally launched in 2013 to select Glass Explorers, Google Glass was a leading name in the augmented reality (AR) space, but failed to live up to expectations.

Designed to display data over the users vision using hands-free, movement and voice-based controls, Glass was initially heralded as a revolutionary computing device.

But its integrated video camera raised privacy concerns, which, combined with the somewhat obnoxious design, led to users being labelled ‘Glassholes’.  There were also issues around the usability of the device, with some users reporting headaches attributed to the placement of the transparent screen over the eyeline.

Google continued Glass as an enterprise product, but has remained a relatively minor player in the modest but growing enterprise AR space.

However, the acquisition of North may provide Google with a fresh opportunity to make smart glasses work for consumers.

Focus offers considerable improvements on Glass: it looks far more like a conventional pair of glasses and offers direct retinal projection, enabling it to show data such as tweets, sports scores and weather updates over the wearer’s vision.

It can also be controlled using Loop, a ring-based four-way directional joystick, rather than relying on spoken instructions, and offers integration for glasses prescriptions.

“We founded North (then Thalmic Labs) in 2012 with an optimistic vision for the future in which technology becomes an invisible, helpful part of our everyday experience. Technology seamlessly blended into your world: immediately accessible when you want it, but hidden away when you don’t,” wrote North co-founders Stephan Lake, Matthew Bailey and Aaron Grant, in an announcement of the acquisition by Google.

“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.”

Read more: Apple AR headset rumours suggest that a launch could be imminent

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