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Return of the Google Glass? Google buys smart eyewear company North

Margi Murphy
Sergey Brin wears a Google Glass - AP

Google has bought a “pioneering” smart glasses company, five years after its own consumer device was canned after failing to lure shoppers. 

Rick Osterloh, Google’s hardware chief, described Canadian startup North as “a pioneer in human computer interfaces and smart glasses” as the company announced the acquisition on Tuesday.

North's Focals device, launched in 2019, allows the wearer to send and receive messages, see turn-by-turn directions, call an Uber, or talk to Alexa.  Owners control what is projected into their line of sight using buttons on the frames and could dictate messages through the microphone.

A second version, set to come with a camera, was due to launch soon. North said it would be refunding any orders as it moves under Google’s wing. 

The announcement reveals  a renewed Google commitment to smart glasses, despite its initial project, Google Glass, failing to gain traction back in 2013. 

The project was one of the search engine’s first known forays into hardware, encouraged by founder Sergey Brin.  Discussing the Google Glass in a 2013 Ted talk, Brin said he had spent two years developing a device that could “free your hands and free your eyes”, because he felt it was unnatural for people to hunch over their smartphones while “socially isolating themselves”.

Shoppers did not warm to the $1,500 price tag, clunky look and expressed privacy concerns about its head-mounted camera and the launch was widely regarded as a flop. 

However, two years after Google Glass was discontinued, Google’s sister company X revealed it had continued to work on the headsets, but for industrial use

It is unclear whether North’s technology will be adapted for factory workers. That the announcement was made by Mr Osterloh, who runs Google’s Nest products, which include its smart speakers and Pixel phones, may suggest that it will become part of Google's consumer line. 

Despite their obvious appeal, smart glasses have a chequered history within the technology industry.  Snap’s Spectacles, a pair of sunglasses with a camera that uploads videos and photos straight to the Snapchat app, have also struggled to take off. In its first year, Snap sold just 220,000 Spectacles and cost the company $40m in inventory after over-zealous projections and cancelled orders.