Will Ambient Computing Get a Boost with Google’s Acquisition of AR Startup North?


Google acquires Canadian startup, North, to accelerate its Augmented Reality (AR) projects and build an ambient computing future. What does it mean to a space that’s crowded with big players and yet has also seen equally big players exit in the past?

Thanks to sci-fi and Hollywood, the Augmented Reality (AR) industry has grabbed everyone’s attention for a while now. Even though it is a promising market, some companies have struggled to stay stable. From Bose shutting down its Bose AR division, Magic Leap announcing layoffs, or the shutdown of budding AR startups such as DaqriOpens a new window , Meta AR, and ODG, the AR world has witnessed several ups and downs in the recent years. Google itself shut down the consumer division of its Google Glass venture in 2015. However, making noise in the volatile AR market again, Google announced the acquisition of Canadian AR wearable startup, North. This news comes on the heels of Apple’s announcementOpens a new window to launch its own Apple AR glasses by 2023.

The acquisition has left everyone in speculation and raised several questions.

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Will Google make a re-entry into the consumer smart glasses market, which is already populated with players such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, Amazon Echo Frames, and Vuzix Blades AR? In 2013, the search engine giant launched Google Glass, wearable, AR smart glasses that used voice, visual, and motion to display information to the users. However, within a short period, consumers flagged privacy and performance concerns, which led to the shutdown of the Glass project in 2015. Despite this, the company still sells Glass Enterprise Edition for the manufacturing, healthcare, and logistics industry. So, there could be feasibility that Google might leverage North’s technology and talent to strengthen its Glass Enterprise Edition.

Another exciting piece that caught attention was ambient computing. Ambient computing is a concept that incorporates AI, machine learning, and cognitive processing into the devices within the user’s environment. These devices can then sense and respond to the user’s needs without requiring the direct attention of the user. Some prime examples are Amazon Echo, Google Home, smart thermostats, and personal bots. Google could also make use of North’s AR glasses to interact with the digital components of the ambient computing environment, which will seamlessly merge the digital and physical worlds.

Rick Osterloh, Senior Vice President, Devices & Services at Google, saysOpens a new window , “North’s technical expertise will help as we continue to invest in our hardware efforts and ambient computing future”. He describes Google’s foray into the AR space as ‘ambient computing. “We’re building towards a future where helpfulness is all around you, where all your devices just work together and technology fades into the background. We call this ambient computing.”

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Formerly known as Thalmic Labs, North was founded in 2012 to build augmented realityOpens a new window glasses. The company launched its Focal 1.0 smart glasses in January 2019 for $999, and within a month, the company dropped its price to $599. The custom-built smart glasses have a built-in version of Alexa and connected to smartphones through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. With North Focals, customers could do various activities such as display notifications, check messages, request for Uber, and much more without looking away from the surroundings. Even though Focal was crammed with exciting features, the company sold very few pairs and was looking for a potential buyer to sell its business.

In a blog post, North’s co-founders Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey, and Aaron Grant sayOpens a new window , “We are winding down Focals 1.0, and we will not be shipping Focals 2.0, but we hope you will continue the journey with us as we start this next chapter.”

The North team will join the Google team based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada—North’s hometown and an area with impressive tech talent.

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