Focals by North

At CES 2019, I was able to sit down with the co-founders of a new type of smart glasses called Focals. These custom-built glasses provide bite-sized bits of notification information to you via a holographic display on your lens. There are two things that make these glasses unique. First, they're customized to each individual person's specifications — you have to get them fitted by an on-site optician. Second, they are actually good looking. They don't look like some weird style of Oakleys with a giant rig attached to them (no offense to Google Glass).

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Focals look like everyday glasses. They're simple, traditional, and almost look like nothing more than a pair of glasses. Hidden inside is, however, a world of information, or at least convenient access to your notifications without distracting you from your current conversation.

After getting your custom-fit Focals, using the support app, you'll connect your phone, iOS or Android, to have notifications sent directly to your ... well ... eye.

Focals by North

There's a very small holographic projection system attached to the right arm of the glasses. There is also a small spot on the right lens where the holographic notification is displayed so you can see it right inside your lens, even though no one else can see the notification, or even tell that you're wearing smart glasses at all. The only oddity is that there is a slight chromatic aberration.

The projection measure just about one-inch circular, maybe even smaller than that. It's close enough to your eye, however, that you can see everything you need to in clear, easy-to-read text.

There are even nice illustrations for such things as weather conditions and calendar notifications.

Focal also supports Alexa thanks to an onboard speaker and microphone array. With Alexa, you can ask for personal things like your next calendar event, or something general, like how tall is the Eiffel Tower. When you ask a question, Alexa responds verbally, via the included speakers. You can, however, mute Alexa if you don't want everyone hearing it. You will also receive a text-based version of the response.

Though the company is considering adding support for Siri in the future, it's not part of the immediate plan.

Focals by North

Navigating the information is done using a very simple ring with a tiny joystick on it. You wear the ring on your index finger and use the joystick with your thumb to navigate left, right, up, and down. You can press the stick to select something.

On Android and iPhone, Focals allows you to respond to text messages using voice-to-text and quick replies. You can even send your favorite emoji. Triaging notifications is fully supported for Android. On iPhone, you can mark a notification as read.

What I found the most pleasant about Focals is that there isn't too much on display. You get bite-sized versions of notifications with clear, bold fonts and simple graphics. I walked around the room with Focals on and asked Alexa a graphics-rich question about the weather and even the three-day forecast was simple, clear, and didn't distract me while I walked. Of course, I'd need to take this into a real-world environment with people walking in front of me and cracks in the sidewalk to be sure. I can tell, however, from the short time I had Focals on my face that it's a pleasant experience which keeps me engaged in the world around me while allowing me to keep track of important notifications.

Apple Watch has been a fantastic wearable device that allows me to stay connected to important information and notifications I receive on my phone, but I still have to look down at a screen to address them. In a conversation with someone, this action is still distracting, and can even seem rude to people that don't have a smartwatch themselves (looking at your watch traditionally has been body language for "I need to be somewhere else").

Focals by North

With Focals, I can stare right into the eyes of my conversation partner and address a notification without them even realizing what I'm doing. I even tested this with iMore's resident VR/AR expert, Russell Holly. I looked directly into his eyes, checked a notification, and continued a conversation with him. He described it as, "It almost looks like you're just looking at a different feature on my face."

The downside to the existence of Focals right now is that the company only has two optician locations, one in Brooklyn in the U.S. and one in Toronto, Canada. To get a pair, you'll need to visit a North Showroom. This significantly limits how many people are able to actually own a pair of Focals. The company is working hard to open more locations, but for now, if you can't make it to either New York or Canada, you're out of luck.

Focals cost $999. If you're able to make it to one of the two North Showrooms, you can make an appointment reservation today. If you don't live nearby, but want to make sure you're the first in line when they come to your town, you can drop a cool $100 on a fully-refundable reservation deposit right now.

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