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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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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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