North Focals Review: Stealthy, Stylish Smart Glasses

UPDATE 2/14/19: Focals today cut the starting price of Focals from $999 / $1,200 CAD to $599 / $799 CAD. It also announced availability for Focals with prescription lenses for $799 / $1,400 CAD. 

Smart glasses have had a tough time going mainstream. Even with the backing of major brands, attempts like Google Glass have failed to open up the market, partially due to their alienating looks. Focals smart glasses from North address this by looking, fitting and working like traditional prescription glasses (prescription lenses start shipping spring this year). Plus, your tech addiction is your little secret with an augmented reality (AR) display only the wearer can see. The commitment to stealth continues with Loop, a plastic ring that lets you control the glasses discreetly through its five-way joystick.

Focals are currently only available after two in-person fittings (for more on North’s detailed fitting process, see our first hands-on with Focals) in their Brooklyn, New York or Toronto, Canada stores. The trip is tempting as Focals cross a huge smart glasses barrier by offering functionality in a form that stands a good (but not perfect) chance of passing for regular glasses. However, while we enjoy apps like Amazon Alexa and Weather, more apps and better image quality would make the $599 / $799 CAD price tag more forgivable.

Focals Smart Glasses and Loop Ring Specs

Processor
Qualcomm APQ8009w with Arm Cortex A7 (32-bit) at 1.09GHz and Qualcomm Adreno 304 GPU
Companion App CompatibilityAndroid 5.0 and newer
iPhone 5S and newer with iOS 11+ and newer
ResolutionRoughly 200x200 (varies by frame) 
Sensors9-axis IMU, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor
AudioIntegrated microphone, speaker
ConnectivityFocals smart glasses: Bluetooth 4.2
Loop ring: Bluetooth LE
Measurements (Length x Width x Bridge)164 x 132-160 x 16-22mm
6.5 x 5.2-6.3 x 0.6-0.9 inches
BatteryFocals: 700 mAh
Loop: 0.8mAh
WeightFocals: 0.16 pounds (72.57g)
Loop: 0.02 pounds (9.07g)
ExtraCharging case
Power adapter
Microfiber cloth
Clip-on sunglass lenses
Warranty1 year
Price (starting) Without prescription: $599 USD / $799 CAD
With prescription: $799 / $999 CAD

Focals use a Qualcomm APQ8009w system-on-a-chip (SoC), which runs on four Arm Cortex A7 CPU cores at a clock speed of up to 1.09GHz. The SoC is marketed for smartwatches, with features like Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity and a Qualcomm Adreno 304 GPU.

North designed Focals with IP55 certification in mind. This standard calls for dust-resistance and the ability to withstand water from a nozzle. That means Focals should endure splashes without breaking. North doesn’t recommend wearing them in the shower or pool.

The Loop is made for IP66 certification and is therefore more dust- and water-resistant than the glasses. That specification calls for the ability to handle “water from heavy seas or water projected from jets.” North says the Loop is suitable for washing your hands but not swimming. It’s available in 10 sizes ranging from 6 to 15.

Design: Stealthy Yet Stylish

Focals are by far the most fashionable smart glasses I’ve seen. Many smart glasses and mixed reality (MR) headsets have tried to improve their appearance, and public perception, by cutting size down and bringing in more traditional designs. Some, like the Vuzix Blade and nreal light we saw at CES, reduce the computer-on-your face look by mirroring sunglass designs.

Focals, however, are in their own category, looking like regular prescription glasses and come in various styles: classic shape in black, or for $100 extra tortoise or gray fade (our review sample is classic in tortoise). Round-style frames are "coming soon," according to North. Focals could very nearly pass for regular glasses if it wasn’t for their chunky arms and the small projector near the right lens that’s visible to people looking at you.

Focals are primarily made of die-cast aluminum and Swiss Grilamid, which is supposed to be a strong and flexible -- yet shape-retaining -- polymer. That’s likely why Focals are so bendy. I can hold them by their arms and twist them disturbing the lens alignment or tug on the arms and pull them pretty far apart. The material is also supposed to make them more comfortable long-term.

Copper accents connect the rubber nose pads, and both arms fold in half thanks to stainless steel springs.

Speaking of those arms, the halves closest to the temples are quite thick. At their thickest point they’re about twice the width of those of my regular glasses. This isn’t an automatic tell that you have a computing machine on your face, but Focals do look chunkier than your average pair of glasses.

The left arm of my review sample is bare black on the outside, while the inside subtly reads “Focals by NORTH” near the temple and “CLASS 1 LASER PRODUCT” near the tip. The right arm is also bare on the outside.

The inside, however, holds the holographic display projector, which uses a display technology called retinal projection to project photons, or light, or raster graphics, onto the retina. When the projector is activated, it’s not visible from the outside. It projects images onto the right eye only. This advanced retina display also calls for precise measurements in the aforementioned fitting process.

On the bottom of the right arm is a small square area for connecting the charger, a small speaker/microphone and the power button.

The Loop controller ring comes in black and is mostly made of polycarbonate with gold-plated charging contacts. You’ll hear a clicking noise in the glasses every time you use the joystick, unless you turn all sound off.

Both the Focals and Loop charge via the included case, which has a USB-C port in the back for plugging in the included power adapter. The adapter comes in smooth gray to match the case, and can also serve as a portable charger for the devices. The case, a smooth, soft, felt-like gray box, is larger than a traditional glasses case. Its handy internal lights illuminate when your devices are charging.

Focals don’t just look like prescription glasses, they're also available with prescription lenses (-4 to +2SPH and 0 to -2CYL) for an extra $200. North won’t offer eye exams, so you’ll have to know your prescription beforehand. This is a bit of a drawback because that means one more appointment and/or phone call if you don’t know your prescription offhand (more on availability and insurance in the Availability section below).

My Most Comfortable Glasses Ever

I wore my Focals and Loop around California for a week, meeting with friends, getting dinner and going to the beach. They stayed snug on my face, even more so than my real glasses, which tend to slide down my nose. North has a two-part fitting process, which includes a 3D face scan and fitting, followed by some final physical tweaking, such as on the nose pads, when you pick them up. This, indeed, led to a pair of specs that fit perfectly, perhaps my most comfortable specs ever. This is also helpful in keeping the AR visible on command without needing to adjust the glasses.

Weighing less than a fourth of a pound, Focals didn’t feel heavy on my face. They are certainly the most lightweight and cozy XR glasses I’ve tried yet.

For even more versatility, North includes a pair of clip-on sunglass lenses with each Focals. They’re available in black with gold or black rims and claim to block 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays.

And the Loop, while a bit chunky and plastic-y for my taste and not the jewelry style I’d typically buy, did not bother my hands long-term. However, I did occasionally push the joystick in unintentionally when doing common tasks like picking things up from the ground.

Focals Apps

Focals wearers must download North’s free companion app on iOS or Android. The app is simple and easy-to-use. It displays the battery status of the Focals and Loop and allows you to calibrate the Focal’s display. It’s also where you log into Amazon for Alexa and Uber, store up to seven contacts for easy texting and two locations for easy directions or Ubers and contact support.

Note that your smartphone also has to connect to the glasses via Bluetooth at all times and allow location tracking and numerous other privacy permissions. North says Focals and Loop can work from up to 9 feet (2.7m) away from your phone.

Home Screen and Notifications

The Focals home screen comes up whenever you press the Loop’s joystick in. It’s a colorful display of the time and date and also has options for adjusting the volume to four settings, including off, toggling sound on or off (a little redundant) and switching between three brightness settings. If you have a meeting coming up soon in your smartphone’s calendar, a reminder shows here underneath the time.

Scrolling to the left brings the notifications screen, which displays any new notifications coming to your phone, including texts, emails, reminders and anything else that would pop up on your phone. Typically, you can read the first few lines of an incoming text or email here; however, you can’t click on any links or view media. There’s an option to clear all notifications at once.

As far as usefulness goes, this was quite handy on the go. I was able to do things like read messages while online for lunch, holding my wallet in one hand and a water bottle in the other. I was able to determine if incoming notifications were important enough to put down my food (they rarely were).

Amazon Alexa

Alexa is always at your beck and call with Focals. It appears any time you hold in the joystick, so it’s pretty easy to accidentally summon the voice assistant.

Alexa on Focals does what you’d expect. It can answer questions, tell jokes and list nearby restaurants, speaking via the speaker on the right arm. However, it loses some capabilities on Focals, like music and radio playback or the ability to bring up images or videos.

But Alexa also works in conjunction with Focals’ other apps. For example, I asked Alexa where the closest mall is, saw a list displayed, pushed the Loop’s joystick in on the closest one and saw an option for directions or calling an Uber to go there.

Alexa listens pretty well via Focals. I never had a problem with the TV or other background noises. However, it usually took at least 30 seconds to respond, sometimes more. And sometimes it straight up ignored me, with the blue circle flashing for 30 or more seconds before disappearing without any result or error notification.

Uber

You can call an Uber on Focals by selecting it the option from one of the two locations you’re allowed to store on the Places section in the smartphone app. If you’re going somewhere else, you can go the Places menu in the Focals and use voice command to write out an address.

Regardless of how you call your Uber, Focals will keep you up to date, displaying updates like when your car is coming and your ETA.

Texting

You can text with Focals using pre-written responses or voice-to-text by either responding to an incoming message or starting a new text to one of seven contacts you can favorite in the Focals smartphone app. You can also read your texting history, up to 12 incoming and outgoing messages, on Focals. Again, you can’t click on links or read images. Instead, it’ll say “This message has media. Check it on your phone.”

But there’s a pesky caveat for iOS users like me: Due to some restrictions Apple put in place in protection of its messaging app, Focals sends all texts from a different phone number. When texting someone with Focals for the first time, it’d first automatically send a text (from a different number than mine) saying, “Hey it’s Scharon Harding. I’m messaging you from my Focals by North.” It’d also start a new thread in my phone. My phone would go off every time someone texted me and each time I sent a text with Focals, as if Focals was texting my phone as well. This led to my phone going off at least twice as much and a messier inbox.  Android users won’t have this problem because Focals can sync directly with the Android messaging app.

This behavior also brought a few interesting responses, as you can see. Among others, my ever-cautious father refused to answer any texts from this strange Focals number. I wasn’t surprised. Besides the number being unknown, thanks to autocorrect I could never text the words “This is Scharon”—only “This is Sharon” or “This is s c h a r o n.”

I also struggled a tad with voice-to-text. Words crawled onto the screen much slower than I speak. It autocorrected in front of me, then provided an option to send when it thought I was done speaking. But sometimes I have a lot to say in texts and don’t know what it’s all going to be when I start. And watching the Focals write out and edit my words threw me off.

Further, Focals’ display automatically goes to sleep after about 8 seconds to prevent the AR from becoming intrusive and preserve battery life. So sometimes, if I paused too long in between words the display turned off and I’d have to start my text over. This often seemed to happen in fewer than 8 seconds though, forcing me to restart my messages plenty of times.

While it was not flawless, I was still impressed with the Focals’ listening comprehension here and also got a kick out of how Focals paired incoming message alerts with an emoji based on the messages’ contents. I appreciated seeing an unimpressed smiley face next to some of my mother’s texts.

If you don’t mind the limitations of pre-written responses or the finicky behavior of voice-to-text technology, Focals’ texting app can certainly help with multitasking.

Calendar

Focals sync with your phone’s calendar to display upcoming events for the day. You can only see today’s schedule in the Focals. You can’t click on an address in an event or add new appointments through the smart glasses.

Directions

Focals has turn-by-turn and compass-based directions, powered by Mapbox customized maps, in the Places menu. You can store two addresses that’ll always show in Places, allowing for quick directions or an Uber, in the smartphone app. The Places menu also automatically displays one nearby point of interest. Alternatively, you can enter an address with voice command.

Directions are not recommended for use while driving.

Weather

The Weather app shows you the current weather in your location. Scrolling down shows you the current weather, plus three more, “Aft,” “Eve,” “Night” and “Morn” (tomorrow), depending on the current time of day. You can’t check the weather for any other day or by hour.

Like most weather apps I’ve tried, Focals’ Weather app doesn’t seem completely accurate. At one point, I could see it was raining, and even Alexa confirmed this, but Focal claimed mere “fog.”

Battery Status

By scrolling all the the way to the right, you can see the battery status of the Focals and Loop at any time, shown in individual percentages.

Gaming Potential

There are no games currently for the Focals besides one beta title I got to try out. In Jumping Game you make a cow jump on top of colored logs one-by-one by pushing in the Loop’s joystick. The game demonstrated the kind of simple -- yet colorful and potentially addictive -- games the Focals could support in the future.

However, the Focals got warm after just a short time playing this simple game. After 10 minutes, the right arm felt warm to the touch. While it was a little warm on my face, it wasn't so hot that I needed to take them off. 

Image Quality

The most impressive part of Focals’ is that no one will know when you’re using apps, since the AR display is only visible to the wearer.

It works by creating red, green and blue light that is manipulated to make text and images the Focals’ projector sends out. Next, there’s a holographic lens in the right eye that’s embedded with a transparent film designed to interact with red, green and blue wavelengths only. Everything else passes through. According to North, “when our specific wavelengths of light hit the transparent film, it acts like a mirror and bounces the light back towards your eye placing the image directly in your line of sight where only you can see it.”

The first thing I noticed about Focals’ display is the lively colors. Like an ice cream parlor, the AR is filled with bright pinks, blues, yellows and green. Never a dull notification here. It makes things even more fun by adding emojis for incoming notifications. Even activating the display, which takes about a second, yields a mild animation, with the time climbing up in gradient effect and color.

In the sun, at night, or with the sunglass clip, the image remained bright and bold, but I did occasionally see ghost images, or double vision. For me, this happened occasionally indoors near sunny windows. I’d see a light green reflection of the display off to the right side. North told me this is a result of green light bouncing off a lens layer meant for red or blue light and that it tends to happen in darker environments. Turning brightness down to the minimum usually eliminated the effect.

The biggest problem, though, was the flicker effect I experienced. Images always appeared to be moving very slightly, similar to a CRT monitor. This hurt the clarity of the display, which was still legible but a touch difficult to look at for more than a couple seconds, especially for text. North told me this was likely caused by my glasses’ refresh rate being too low. After receiving a replacement pair, the image seemed sharper but at times still looked like it was quivering a tad. It’s possible I’m more sensitive to the effect than others.

Image quality stayed pretty consistent in different environments, except for when I looked directly out of a sunny window (without the sunclips on). With that much light hitting my eyes, some text on the left side faded in and out of visibility when reading text messages or the day’s weather.

Battery Life

North claims Focals last up to 18 hours and the Loop up to three days with “intermittent use.” As mentioned, you can always check the status of the Focals and Loop on the companion app or by scrolling all the way to the right on the smart glasses.

I used the Focals in lieu of my phone as often as possible — which meant a lot of texting and reading notifications, checking the weather and directions at least once and playing a game for at least 5 minutes—at max brightness and volume. They lasted 7-10 hours a day, while the Loop survived a smidge over 3 days before needing a recharge.

As mentioned earlier, the Focals and Loop’s case is also their charger. They take up to 2 hours to fully charge simultaneously. The case also fully charges in four hours, for use as a portable charger. A fully charged battery case is supposed to last for three full charges, but mine never lasted for 2 full charges of the Focals only (not the Loop). I wouldn’t recommend going on a weekend trip without the power adapter.

Heat

After 2 minutes of continuous use the Focals were warm to the touch. After 5 minutes, I felt a gentle warmth upon my face. Again, this wasn’t enough heat to make me take the glasses off but was still bothersome. Most of the warmth was on the right arm, especially on the top (the part that doesn't touch the face) by the temple.

After playing with the Focals for 5 continuous minutes at maximum brightness and volume, the right arm’s hottest point was 44 degrees Celsius (111.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

Availability

Focals require two in-person fittings to ensure the glasses fit your face and the AR is properly positioned for your eye. Because of this, you have to be able to physically get to one of North’s two stores (Brooklyn or Toronto) twice. North is working on expanding but no word on when or where we can expect additional showrooms yet.

Focals cost $999 without prescription lenses. Prescription lenses adds $200 to the price tag. Those who get prescriptions, however, will be able to use their insurance to help pay, North told me. Pricing will depend on the customer’s insurance provider/plan.

Conclusion

Focals are worth a look if you’re ready for smart glasses. They’re discrete, with AR only you can see, and also look pretty darn close to regular glasses. There’s a good chance people will mistake them for regular glasses or, with the included-clip on lenses, sunglasses.

But a lot of what you’re paying for is that look. In terms of apps, Focals has the minimum, but I’d like to see more. Control over music, a video streaming app, a voice-to-notes taker or even some games would make the $999 specs more appealing. While that price is in line with competitors, you can still get a laptop for that amount, so the more functionality, the better.

Among Focals’ current apps, there are some small, but noticeable, limitations, such as iPhone users’ texts sending from a different number and the inability to click on links or media or see the calendar or weather for upcoming days. The glasses usually alert you when you have an incoming/missed call, but a couple of times my review unit failed to do so. Focals’ design is so good that we’re hopeful more apps will come—or at least that Apple will allow them to send texts properly.

The image quality also has room for improvement. In addition to to the occasional ghost images, two of my review samples displayed content that was legible but looked slightly shaky, like a CRT monitor, making text in particular a little irritating to look at with mild, unwanted blur.

But if you’ve been waiting for a pair of smart glasses that offer function without obliterating your fashion cred, there’s no better choice currently than Focals. The mandatory Loop controller can be viewed as a burden, but it’s a small price to pay for subtlety. If you’re willing to pay the premium price required of smart glasses and can get to Brooklyn or Toronto, Focals promise the best style, a fun, easy-to-use (but basic) user experience and premium fitting.

6 comments
    Your comment
  • jpe1701
    Thank you Scharon.
  • spentshells
    Nobody with glasses is allowed on my home.
  • boju
  • alextheblue
    Not capable of replacing premium-grade prescription lenses yet (Essilor or equivalent package), let alone acting as a decent smart device. But maybe it's good enough for some people. Too many issues for me, even setting lenses aside. Maybe there will be something I could classify as "good enough" in a few more years. Or maybe I'll just have to wait for 'ware.

    53571 said:
    Nobody with glasses is allowed on my home.
    I was on your roof when you weren't looking.
  • mischon123
    Thing is for the OCD crowd and comes with charging anxiety. No thx.
  • loki1944
    Hideous.