Google Snaps Up North, Makers of Focals Glasses

Alphabet has bought North. The company had struggled to gain traction, even with a second version on the way.

All eyes were on Apple this week, which has been holding its virtual developer conference. And then, news came out of my home country (Canada) that Alphabet had snapped up North, which has been considered a potentially serious player in augmented reality/smart-glasses (paywall):

“North Inc. is in the final stages of selling itself to Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc., for about $180-million…after spending the past eight years amassing a trover of engineering talent and patents, but struggling to sell its products…

North’s engineering team and patents would give Alphabet a significant advantage in re-entering the still-small consumer smart-glasses market…

North is now effectively being stripped for parts. In interviews, many former employees and people close to the company describes its founders as visionary technologists who stumbled badly in the marketplace.”

One of the key challenges North faced was fitting. The glasses required buyers to have a custom fitting done, and even then roughly one in five couldn’t wear them. “The technology disproportionately struggled to find a fit for Asian customers, as well as Black and other dark-skinned people”.

This “user flow” was explored at length by Robert Scoble when assessing the future plans of Apple:

His point was that eyeglasses are an incredibly tough market to crack - let alone glasses that augment reality. Simply because you’re talking about eyes, head shapes, prescriptions and fittings.

(I responded that Apple is able to play a very long and patient game).

So why did Google snap up North?

Do they think they can solve the issues around distribution? North had stores in Toronto and Brooklyn, and then attempted to expand their reach by using a mobile fitting lab and by using an app so that users could scan their own heads (an app which didn’t work a lot of the time).

Or was Google mostly after some of the engineering team and the patents? North had previously snapped up a portfolio of patents from Intel, as Cesar Berardini pointed out to me on Twitter:

In either case, it still leaves several unanswered questions:

  • North was by many accounts ready to launch version 2.0 of its glasses. Will those plans be shelved?

  • Google will launch new glasses regardless. Will they still come at this from the industrial side and then later migrate to consumer (or I should say BACK to consumer)? Or will they split their ‘industrial’ and consumer markets and try to get to market with a new consumer brand (possibly based on Focals)?

Whatever the answers, it’s clear that all of the major companies are heavily invested in AR and smart-glasses.

It’s a race, sure, but there will be the side benefit of consumer choice. And unlike when Apple launched the iPhone, we won’t need to wait for the equivalent of Android phones.

I am, however, disappointed. I would have loved to see a Canadian David take on the Silicon Valley Goliaths.

But we can still hope that there are scrappy start-ups out there (looking at you Nreal) who can demonstrate that you don’t need to be a massive company to take a serious crack at optical wearables.