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Technology Waterloo wearables startup Thalmic Labs changes its name, turns focus to smart glasses

Aaron Grant, left, and Matthew Bailey, co-founders of Thalmic Labs. The company is in the process of manufacturing smart glasses that use holographic technology.

Fred Lum

A once-sawdust-ridden corner of a former woodworking shop in Waterloo, Ont., is now a tightly sealed laboratory where even a single speck of dust is considered a threat to the big gamble that one of the region’s highest-profile technology companies is undertaking.

Thalmic Labs − the Kitchener company best known for Myo, an armband that lets users control devices through gestures − uses this room to perfect micro-optic projectors that must operate with utmost clarity. Across the building, blue-smocked assembly staff embed these projectors into the arms of custom-designed “smart glasses,” where they’ll shoot neon light onto holographic film embedded in the lenses – and bounce neon notifications for e-mails, texts and meeting times into the back of wearers' right eyes so they appear an arm’s-length away.

After years of quiet that saw the six-year-old company raise a staggering US$120-million Series B financing round led by Intel Capital, the Amazon Alexa Fund and Fidelity Investments Canada, and hire hundreds, Thalmic will reveal a pair of big surprises on Tuesday. As it officially changes its name to North Inc., it’s also unveiling a long-planned strategic pivot: smart glasses it has branded “Focals.”

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As it officially changes its name to North Inc., the company is also unveiling smart glasses branded 'Focals'

Fred Lum

Eschewing the once-hyped tech-first designs such as Google Glass that marked the most recent generation of smart glasses – clunky devices that invited sartorial mockery, dissuaded mass adoption and forced the Alphabet Inc. company to give up targeting them to consumers more than three years ago – North wants its smart glasses to be, first and foremost, glasses.

In recent years, smart glasses have largely become an enterprise product; the Vuzix Blade and Sony’s SmartEyeglass, for instance, target sectors such as manufacturing and health care. If a player can win over consumers, it could stand to cash in.

Some analysts are projecting interest in smart glasses to boom: One report from BCC Research found that while the single-eye-display smart-glasses market was worth just US$225.9-million in 2017, it could rise to US$9.3-billion in 2022. But focusing on the consumer comes with few guarantees for success; it didn’t work for Google, and Intel, a major investor in North, just this year axed its own consumer-focused smart-glasses play.

North believes it can succeed by making smart glasses with the wearer, not the technology, as its biggest priority.

Co-founder and chief executive Stephen Lake, 28, frames the company’s mission as a question: “How do we give you the magical benefit of tech in a way that allows you to be present in the world in front of you? With technology that’s there when you need it, and invisible when you don’t."

So Mr. Lake and his team designed Focals to be as minimally invasive as they could make them, with the technology crammed largely into their arms, making them slightly wider than average. Each pair will be custom-fitted to the user at two locations to start, on Toronto’s Ossington Avenue and in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill − there’s more to come next year − with the help of an 11-camera 3-D scanner and an optician. Focals will come in two shapes, three colourways, a range of sizes and a US$999 price point inclusive of any prescription costs.

Once connected to an Apple or Android phone via Bluetooth, users will only see alerts North considers essential, such as messages, reminders and directions. With a built-in microphone and an index-finger ring featuring a tiny, thumb-controlled joystick called “the loop,” wearers can toggle through features and respond with voice and gestures.

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Focals' physical controls will be limited to that joystick; save for ongoing customer care, the days of the arm-waving Myo are over; sales were discontinued this month. In fact, the company formed as Thalmic Labs by three friends from the University of Waterloo in 2012 was plotting a smart-glasses play before the public could even get their hands on Myo.

The armband, which first shipped in 2014, responded to electrical activity in the wearers’ arm muscles. It was meant to be used in conjunction with other products as the company saw a big future in virtual and augmented reality – such as, say, vision enhanced by smart glasses. But that kind of tech didn’t reach mass adoption.

So Thalmic quietly set up a small team to work on a product of its own. By the time the company was developing a second version of Myo, Mr. Lake says, half of Thalmic was working on eyewear.

The decision meant making deep investments in research and development, which finally explains the company’s massive 2016 growth-capital fundraising round. But as they developed Focals, Thalmic’s team hit “hundreds” of road blocks, Mr. Lake says. After leading holography experts told the company that they couldn’t embed a holographic lens in a prescription lens, for instance, the company set out to do it on its own.

“So many parts of what we’ve done, people have told us along the way, ‘There’s no way that can be done,’ " says co-founder and software-division chief technology officer Aaron Grant.

This meant creating manufacturing tools and processes entirely in-house, filing for hundreds of patents and hiring hundreds of specialists; what was a 50-person shop when Myo first shipped is now nearing 500 staff. “For any other startup in any other part of the world, that’d be tough, but we had the luxury of being in the same town as BlackBerry,” says co-founder Matthew Bailey, its CTO in charge of hardware.

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To sell the new product, the company tapped into another Canadian success, nabbing Marie Stipancik from Clearly Contacts to lead eyewear design. To complement the futuristic technology of Focals, Ms. Stipancik turned to the past for inspiration, playing off of silhouettes inspired by the eyewear of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall and Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer.

The last generation of smart glasses had other priorities. "They started with function, and tried to fight their way back to form,” Mr. Lake says. North’s approach, he says, is the opposite. “They’re a pair of eyewear before you even think about the technology inside.”

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