Google acquires holographic glasses startup North

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Google has confirmed that it has acquired North, a Canadian augmented reality (AR) wearables company backed by Amazon and Intel.

Neither Google or North confirmed the value of the acquisition, however The Globe and Mail, which first reported on Alphabet’s impending acquisition last week, quoted sources as saying the deal was pegged at around $180 million. For context, North had raised close to $200 million in a mixture of equity, debt, and grants, meaning that if the reported acquisition price is accurate, this is something akin to a firesale.

North will wind down its business, and the team will join Google’s existing hub in Kitchener, Ontario, where North is already based. Google didn’t state specifically what it has in store for North’s technology, but Rick Osterloh — senior VP for devices & services at Google — said that North’s technical expertise will “help as we continue to invest in our hardware efforts and ambient computing future.”

Out of focus

Founded in 2012 initially as Thalmic Labs, the Kitchener, Ontario-based company was originally known for a gesture- and motion-guided device called Myo, a $200 armband that enabled amputees to control a prosthetic hand, or surgeons to navigate screens while carrying out complicated surgery. In 2016, Thalmic Labs raised a hefty $120 million in funding from Amazon’s Alexa Fund, Intel Capital, and Fidelity Investments Canada, and then rebranded as North in 2018 while simultaneously pivoting to holographic eyewear.

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North’s first product, Focals, were glasses that connect to the user’s smartphone over Bluetooth to display key notifications directly in the wearer’s field of view, including weather, calendar notifications, messages, turn-by-turn navigation, and more. A separate connected ring called Loop was also required and allowed users to control the glasses by clicking with their finger. Moreover, the spectacles also sported a built-in mic so you can ask Alexa questions, with answers delivered on the display or via a little speaker.

Focals by North

Above: Focals by North

North’s business model was fraught with friction from the outset. Besides the $999 price tag, Focals required custom fitting in physical retail stores, of which there were only two — one in Toronto and one in New York. The company soon scythed the price nearly in half to a $600 starting price, and then it laid off some 150 employees to cut costs in early 2019. A month later, news emerged that North had raised $40 million in debt financing, and then last September North started selling its Focals AR glasses online, leaning on the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera to help custom-fit the frames remotely.

While the writing was already on the wall for North, in December last year the company pulled sales for Focals altogether and revealed that a new “sleeker” design would be launched some time in 2020 — that, however, never materialized. In a separate blog post today, North’s founders said that it was winding down Focals 1.0 — presumably meaning that it is ceasing support for existing users — and that it would not be shipping Focals 2.0 as planned.

North's Focals 2.0 teaser image

Above: North’s Focals 2.0 teaser image

The Globe and Mail cited a number of former North employees who spoke to the Canadian publication on condition of anonymity. According to the sources, company executives made “many questionable decisions” in the rollout of Focals, including rushing them to market before they were ready and failing to find a proper product-market fit.

Google is no stranger to augmented reality (AR) eyewear itself, of course, mostly via Google Glass which it first unveiled way back in 2013. Things didn’t quite work out for Google Glass as a consumer product, and Google later repositioned the product for the enterprise, where it is still hopeful of gaining traction across industries such as manufacturing. It’s also worth noting that other similar companies have struggled to make a success of AR headsets, including the heavily-funded Magic Leap which recently announced significant layoffs and a refocus on the enterprise. And last year, Daqri — an enterprise AR headset startupannounced it was shutting down.

The main takeaway from all of this seems to be that it’s incredibly difficult to make a success of AR: either the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time, companies have yet to deploy it in a way that makes sense for consumers, or people simply don’t want constant alerts in their direct line-of-sight.

North’s closure also raises questions about what this means for those who doled out $1,000 for the glasses less than two years ago. VentureBeat has reached out to North and Google for clarification on whether any support or compensation will be provided.

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