North’s new smart-glasses technology includes biometric scans and encrypted eye-to-eye communication

Illustration by Hanna Lee

Smart-glasses firm North is exploring biometric scans for user verification and an encrypted eye-to-eye messaging service ahead of the launch of a new version of its eyewear. 

The Kitchener, Ont.-based company stopped selling its first-generation Focals smart glasses last month and said it would launch a new version in 2020. North has revealed almost no information about what features the new glasses will include. However, The Logic has learned the firm has been working on over a dozen new features, including several it claims give it a leg up over competitors like Snap Spectacles and Google Glass.

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Talking Point

Kitchener, Ont.-based North has published over 100 patents for a wide variety of features ahead of the launch of its second-generation smart glasses. The firm would not say if any of the new features, which include watching video, taking photos, biometric scans and an encrypted eye-to-eye messaging service, will be included when it launches Focals 2.0 later this year. The patent push comes on the heels of a difficult year for the company, which included mass layoffs and the loss of government funding, and in the face of growing competition from rivals like Apple, Facebook, Snapchat and one of its own investors, Amazon.

North is one of Canada’s most prominent startups, with about US$200 million raised in total and the backing of firms including Amazon, Intel and Fidelity. It had a difficult 2019, however, cutting the price of Focals nearly in half, laying off 150 staff and losing $24 million in federal government funding. Last month, The Logic reported that senior product staff warned CEO Stephen Lake before the smart glasses were launched in October 2018 that the product had a wide variety of technical deficiencies. 

The firm appears to have spent a significant amount of time trying to improve the technology behind its smart glasses. It published over 100 patents in 2019, some of which are applications that have yet to be granted or rejected. According to IFI Claims, North was third among Canadian firms in U.S. patent filings in 2019, behind only BlackBerry and Pratt & Whitney Canada. North has already published two more patents in 2020. 

The patents detail how the biometric verification and eye-to-eye messaging service would work, as well as new features like watching video, taking selfies and converting text-based messages into emojis. 

It is unclear if any of these features will be included in the second-generation smart glasses, or in future iterations. North did not directly answer questions about the patents, or anything else. “We do not have any further comments for this story,” wrote Sara Wynne, an account director at Uproar PR, in an statement emailed on behalf of North. 

North has struggled in the past to translate its research to its consumer products. Focals initially launched with a buggy iPhone-messaging integration and without prescription support. 

The company has promised its Focals 2.0 will have 10 times better resolution and be 40 per cent lighter. Several of the patents detail how the firm hopes to achieve the latter via technical changes like improved hologram recording and better lasers. One patent states that by improving the optical engines, the device “may have various advantages over existing designs including, for example, smaller volume, lower weight, better manufacturability, lower cost, faster modulation speed, etc.” 

Both the eye-to-eye messaging service and the biometric scan are designed to offer users a greater degree of privacy while using smart glasses. The scan would limit the use of the glasses to one authorized user or a small group by “scanning the infrared light over an eye of the user, detecting reflections of infrared light from the eye of the user, and extracting test biometric identification data,” according to the patent. This would allow the device to be “both private and secure.”

The conversion from text to emoji is designed to save space, so that long messages can be communicated on the small lens of an eyeglass. 

“In at least one implementation of the system for reduced visual footprint of textual communications, the single graphic or pictorial symbol may be an emoji or other pictorial symbol. Accordingly, in one such implementation, a textual message of “hey do you want to meet up for coffee?” maps to a single symbol of a coffee cup,” reads one patent.

The patents include claims about how North’s technology is superior to that of competitors. For example, Google Glass, the Optinvent Ora, the Epson Moverio and the Sony Glasstron are criticized because “they lack fashion appeal or comfort”; Snap Spectacles and Google Glass are chided for their lack of selfie-taking capabilities. 

“A deficiency of many wearable electronic devices that include cameras (especially those wearable electronic devices that approximate an eyeglasses form factor, such as Snap Spectacles and Google Glass) is that the user is not able to take selfies while wearing and operating the device in its intended way,” reads one North patent.

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The smart-glasses field is growing increasingly crowded. American tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Snapchat are all rolling out or considering their own smart glasses. Amazon’s entry, which it announced in September 2019, comes despite its multiple investments in North. The American firm’s product also significantly undercuts North’s on price: its glasses will cost US$179.99, while North’s Focals started at US$599 after price cuts; the company hasn’t announced prices for the new version. 

Before its struggles with smart glasses, North released a motion-controlled armband, but stopped selling it in October 2018. One of the patents discusses how a third wearable device could be integrated into the smart glasses and the ring used to control them; another patent details how the technology, which could be used for smart glasses, could also be used in the heads-up displays of cars, airplanes, trains and boats. 

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