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Distracted too often by your smartphone? This company thinks it can help

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Some of the best known companies in the world have tried — and failed — to market smartglasses to consumers, but a small Canadian company believes it’s ready to show Google, Microsoft and Sony how it’s done.

“There’s a massive opportunity, really a mass-market opportunity, for a product like Focals to be successful,” said Aaron Grant, co-founder of North, the Kitchener, Ont.-based firm that has launched Focals, a new brand of eyeglasses that will deliver smartphone functions via wearable technology.

A far-fetched boast? Maybe not. Both Amazon and Intel are among the investors who have poured $140 million US into North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs. The company has just opened retail stores in Toronto and Brooklyn, N.Y.

Grant and his partners are convinced there’s potential for big sales to the growing number of smartphone users who are tired of being distracted by their devices.  

“You pull it out to check the time, and the next thing you know you’re scrolling through an endless list of apps,” he said. “Things are being designed more and more to just kind of suck you in, and monopolize your attention.”

‘Subtle and discreet’

The idea behind Focals is that instead of reaching into a pocket or purse to check a smartphone, a user can wear what looks like regular prescription eyeglasses. A tiny projector and other technology are embedded in the arms of the glasses and users wear a type of ring that works like a joystick to navigate various tasks — without the need to look down.

Aaron Grant is one of three co-founders of North, the company behind Focals smartglasses. (Marc Baby/CBC)Time, weather and calendar functions are accessible, as are email, texting and mapping functions. The glasses also work with Uber and Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant. Information is projected onto a small circle of holographic film on the right lens in a way that doesn’t obscure the user’s vision, and is invisible to others. Users can sit in a meeting or across a kitchen table and no one would know they were checking email.

“Subtle and discreet are good words to describe the overall approach to the product,” said Grant, noting that a small blip of light will alert users to incoming emails and texts, but the glasses never demand immediate attention — users can choose to engage when it’s convenient.

Geek culture

Recent history shows the venture is an expensive gamble.

Case in point: Google’s spectacular fail with smartglasses. It launched Google Glass in 2012 with huge hype, including a widely publicized contest to be among the first eligible to buy the $1,500 product.

“It was associated with geek culture very quickly even though Google didn’t want it to be,” explains Isabel Pedersen, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Digital Life, Media and Culture, and has written a book about wearable technology.

A 2013 photo of a developer wearing a Google Glass prototype. Most consumers were turned off by the unusual look of the device. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

She said Google’s promotional campaign promised a sexy, exciting image for Glass users, but the product looked odd and appeared clumsy to use. It didn’t take long to become the butt of jokes on late-night television, and was later mocked on an episode of The Simpsons.

Even so, that failure didn’t dampen the desire of other companies to win over consumers to a more streamlined way to connect with the digital world. None have broken through to the mass market, however.

“In terms of wearable computing and wearable technology, smartglasses are the Holy Grail,” said Pedersen. “Whatever company can get consumers to use and buy smartglasses will really make it.”

Not cheap

Grant and his co-founders are all just 28 years old, and had previously caught the attention of the tech world when they released the Myo armband, a gesture recognition device that lets users control technology wirelessly, using muscle movements. The company now employs 450 people and has spent the last five years developing Focals, learning from the mistakes of bigger companies.

“Our everyday smartglasses product was designed to be a pair of eyewear first, and not a piece of technology first,” explains Grant. “And I think that’s super important for something that you’re going to wear every day, and it’s going to be part of your identity and how you express yourself.”

The Focals smartglasses are operated with a ring called ‘the loop.’ It works like a joy stick that users can move up, down and sideways. The button in the centre makes selections. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)

There are just three styles of Focals, but unlike the unusual space-age design of Google Glass, all look like regular eyeglasses. An in-store fitting is required to ensure the holographic projector lines up with the wearer’s eyes.

At $1,299, the whole package isn’t cheap.

Privacy issues

“They’re selling it as a luxury item,” said Pedersen, who has already ordered a pair of Focals. “That means it’s not going to be for 12-year-olds or 15-year-olds or maybe even people in their early 20s. I think they’re looking for a customer between 35 and 65 who can afford it.”

She also flags privacy issues as a potential stumbling block for Focals.

“We live in a datasphere that is using our data as a commodity,” she said. “Focals’ integration with large companies like Uber and Amazon presents the worry that there might be data implications. That’s something about this new product that we don’t understand yet.”

Isabel Pederson, who teaches at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, has written a book about wearable technology. (Marc Baby/CBC)

Grant acknowledges that his team opted not to add a camera to the smartglasses due to privacy issues. “There’s clear value from having a camera in smartglasses,” he said. “But there are also obviously a ton of privacy concerns and social implications.”  

The more immediate challenge for the company though, is how to convince the world that this is the next step in the evolution of consumer technology; a product that will allow them to keep their eyes up, looking at the world around them, even as they access the many useful functions of a smartphone.

“I think it’s just a mistake to think that smartphones are the best we can do, and that if we want the value they offer we have to live with this tradeoff that we’re going to be forever distracted. Why does that have to be the case and why can’t we do better?” asks Grant. “I think we can.”

He and his partners are betting tens of millions of investors’ dollars, years of effort, and the very survival of an ambitious little Canadian company, on the belief that he’s right.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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