Putting a new lens on smart glasses

Why North believes sleek styles and boutiques can help drive interest in a moribund tech product.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of strategy.

Companies, from startups to behemoths, are once again trying to bring smart glasses to the masses.

Back in 2015, Google stopped making consumer-facing prototypes for Glass, but then repositioned its smart glasses as a tool for enterprise settings. Snap’s “Spectacles” were initially met with a tepid response, but have caught on as the company has enhanced its performance and refined its design since the initial product launch in 2016.

The smart-glasses market will grow 13% globally in 2019, according to Market Research Future. That opportunity is what convinced Waterloo, Ont.’s, Thalmic Labs to pivot its business, renaming itself North and focusing all of its efforts on its Focals smart glasses.

Adam Ketcheson, CMO at North, says the company designed its glasses – available in two stylish frames, with or without a prescription – to display incoming text messages, calendars, directions and weather, while also integrating tasks from Amazon Alexa and Uber.

In January, North shipped the first pairs of Focals to boutique showrooms in Toronto and New York, giving it a retail foothold in fashion-forward cities and distancing itself from early adopters in Silicon Valley.

Trendy stores put Focals in the same consideration set as the Warby Parkers and Bailey Nelsons of the world, and pop-ups planned this spring aim to bring the brand to a wider audience. Retail also gets consumers to consider how the tech can fit into their lives. Experiential pop-ups for Google’s Home smart speaker, for example, often recreate rooms of a house to show how the tech works.

Ketcheson says consumer interest in smart glasses is highest among those who already wear prescription eyewear. That’s a big reason behind the premium fashion-inspired approach, as Focals could potentially replace stylish frames worn by those who can afford the USD$600-and-up smart glasses.

“I don’t think it’s a mass product yet,” Ketcheson says of smart glasses. “If we want to expand that opportunity, we need to put it on other people’s faces. That’s when you see the lightbulb go off and they understand how it’ll make their life better in the future.”

Update: After this story went to press, it was reported by The Verge that North would be laying off 150 of its 400 staff, most of which were manufacturing roles. While not confirming the number of layoffs, North’s CEO and co-founder Stephen Lake gave a statement to The Globe and Mail stating that growing quickly was “the right choice at the time” and necessary to develop Focals and bring them to market, and told The Verge that the layoffs were required to focus its resources and sustain its business for the long term.