In June of 2020, as the business world scrambled to deal with the pandemic, Google quietly acquired North, one of the most promising smart glasses startups on the market. Although no price was confirmed by either company, one report from Canada’s Globe and Mail put the acquisition figure at around $180 million.
Soon after, in 2021, several new augmented reality (AR) software and hardware hiring notices from Google stoked rumors that the North acquisition had been just the first step toward the search giant releasing a new smart glasses product. Two years later, Google is finally confirming what the earlier hints indicated.
“Starting next month, we plan to test AR prototypes in the real world. This will allow us to better understand how these devices can help people in their everyday lives,” Juston Payne, a product manager at Google, wrote this week on the company’s website. “We’ll begin small-scale testing in public settings with AR prototypes worn by a few dozen Googlers and select trusted testers.”
Although Payne’s blog post doesn’t feature a photograph of the prototype, its header image does tease various disassembled fragments of what look like normal pairs of eyeglasses. The parts, while not identical to the smart glasses product from North, nevertheless evoke the traditional eyeglasses design the company sold in its retail outlets in the US and Canada.
North’s device, called Focals, mostly looked like normal glasses, except for thicker arms, which contained the system’s computing and battery components. Wearers were also required to wear a small ring with a button interface to control the device’s onscreen functions. Instead of the rich 3D version of AR seen in Instagram and Snapchat filters, North’s AR focused on two-dimensional display text and icons that delivered everything from notifications from the user’s smartphone to travel directions and interactions with Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. That 2D dynamic is featured in one of Google’s latest AR demonstrations.
In addition to its computing features, the Focals product also focused on style by offering several different color designs, an add-on that transformed the frames into shades, and a high-end carrying case that doubled as a charger. North also launched luxury boutiques in New York City and Toronto for demonstrations and sales to the public, which gave the startup the profile of a kind of Warby Parker for smart glasses in the making.
The North Focals purchase process also involved very detailed sizing measurements which, while possible via its app, supported the company’s strategy of deploying mobile and permanent retail locations. Google is also experimenting with its own retail outlets in New York, which could eventually serve as launchpads for its next smart glasses product.
What this all means is that Google’s first smart glasses product, Google Glass, which was widely criticized following its 2013 launch, and closed to general consumers in 2015, will probably remain an enterprise business product rather than re-entering the consumer market. Aside from its design, which made the wearer look like a cyborg, the most frequent complaint about Google Glass was its ability to take photos and videos of people in public without their knowledge.
Given the somewhat negative memories the Google Glass name evokes for some, Google’s next smart glasses product is unlikely to bear any naming or branding similarity to Google Glass. Along those lines, unlike smart glasses offerings from Snap (Spectacles) and Facebook (Ray-Bay Stories), it’s worth noting that North’s device did not take photos like Google Glass. And while the popularization of smartphones has gone a long way toward reducing concerns about being photographed in public, Google still appears to be sensitive about this aspect of any new smart glasses product.
“These prototypes will include in-lens displays, microphones and cameras — but they’ll have strict limitations on what they can do,” wrote Payne. “For example, our AR prototypes don’t support photography and videography, though image data will be used to enable experiences like translating the menu in front of you or showing you directions to a nearby coffee shop.”
No release date has been announced for Google’s smart glasses, but the company continues to hire for AR hardware and software positions, so an eventual public-facing product is likely. The well-designed, privacy-centric smart glasses products from Amazon (Echo Frames), Meta, and Snap have all benefited from the early missteps of Google Glass (Snap and Meta devices include LED lights to let people know the wearer is taking a photo or video). And, based on its North investment, it seems Google has learned a few lessons, too, namely that people want to look good while computing.
But Google’s decision to give smart glasses another try isn’t just about emerging wearable computing trends, it’s about data, the lifeblood of the Mountainview, California-based tech company. Integrating Google Search and Maps—both now powered by voice interfaces and Google Assistant—into a pair of smart glasses could rapidly create the most important wearable devices on the market.