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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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Real Estate

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: What you need to know

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Your home is likely the biggest asset you’ll ever own. So how can you protect it in case something were to happen to you? To start, homeowners have a few options to choose from. You can either:

  • ensure you have mortgage protection with a life insurance policy from an insurance company or
  • get mortgage insurance from a bank or mortgage lender.

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: How do they each work?  

The first thing to know is that life insurance can be a great way to make sure you and your family have mortgage protection.

The money from a life insurance policy usually goes right into the hands of your beneficiaries – not the bank or mortgage lender. Your beneficiaries are whoever you choose to receive the benefit or money from your policy after you die.

Life insurance policies, like term life insurance, come with a death benefit. A death benefit is the amount of money given to your beneficiaries after you die. The exact amount they’ll receive depends on the policy you buy.

With term life insurance, you’re covered for a set period, such as 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The premium – that’s the monthly or annual fee you pay for insurance – is usually low for the first term.

If you die while you’re coved by your life insurance policy, your beneficiaries will receive a tax-free death benefit. They can then use this money to help pay off the mortgage or for any other reason. So not only is your mortgage protected, but your family will also have funds to cover other expenses that they relied on you to pay.

Mortgage insurance works by paying off the outstanding principal balance of your mortgage, up to a certain amount, if you die.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes directly to the bank or lender to pay off the mortgage – and that’s it. There’s no extra money to cover other expenses, and you don’t get to leave any cash behind to your beneficiaries.

What’s the difference between mortgage insurance and life insurance?

The main difference is that mortgage insurance covers only your outstanding mortgage balance. And, that money goes directly to the bank or mortgage lender, not your beneficiary. This means that there’s no cash, payout or benefit given to your beneficiary. 

With life insurance, however, you get mortgage protection and more. Here’s how it works: every life insurance policy provides a tax-free amount of money (the death benefit) to the beneficiary. The payment can cover more than just the mortgage. The beneficiary may then use the money for any purpose. For example, apart from paying off the mortgage, they can also use the funds from the death benefit to cover:

  • any of your remaining debts,
  • the cost of child care,
  • funeral costs,
  • the cost of child care, and
  • any other living expenses. 

But before you decide between life insurance and mortgage insurance, here are some other important differences to keep in mind:

Who gets the money?

With life insurance, the money goes to whomever you name as your beneficiary.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes entirely to the bank.

Can you move your policy?

With life insurance, your policy stays with you even if you transfer your mortgage to another company. There’s no need to re-apply or prove your health is good enough to be insured.

With mortgage insurance, however, your policy doesn’t automatically move with you if you change mortgage providers. If you move your mortgage to another bank, you’ll have to prove that your health is still good.

Which offers more flexibility, life insurance or mortgage insurance?

With life insurance, your beneficiaries have the flexibility to cover the mortgage balance and more after you die. As the policy owner, you can choose how much insurance coverage you want and how long you need it. And, the coverage doesn’t decline unless you want it to.

With mortgage insurance through a bank, you don’t have the flexibility to change your coverage. In this case, you’re only protecting the outstanding balance on your mortgage.

Do you need a medical exam to qualify? 

With a term life insurance policy from Sun Life, you may have to answer some medical questions or take a medical exam before you’re approved for coverage. Once you’re approved, Sun Life won’t ask for any additional medical information later on.

With mortgage insurance, a bank or mortgage lender may ask some medical questions when you apply. However, if you make a claim after you’re approved, your bank may ask for additional medical information.* At that point, they may discover some conditions that disqualify you from receiving payment on a claim.

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Real Estate

5 common mistakes Canadians make with their mortgages

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This article was created by MoneyWise. Postmedia and MoneyWise may earn an affiliate commission through links on this page.

Since COVID-19 dragged interest rates to historic lows last year, Canadians have been diving into the real estate market with unprecedented verve.

During a time of extraordinary financial disruption, more than 551,000 properties sold last year — a new annual record, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Those sales provided a desperately needed dose of oxygen for the country’s gasping economy.

Given the slew of new mortgages taken out in 2020, there were bound to be slip-ups. So, MoneyWise asked four of the country’s sharpest mortgage minds to share what they feel are the mistakes Canadians most frequently make when securing a home loan.

Mistake 1: Not having your documents ready

One of your mortgage broker’s primary functions is to provide lenders with paperwork confirming your income, assets, source of down payment and overall reliability as a borrower. Without complete and accurate documentation, no reputable lender will be able to process your loan.

But “borrowers often don’t have these documents on hand,” says John Vo of Spicer Vo Mortgages in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “And even when they do provide these documents, they may not be the correct documentation required.”

Some of the most frequent mistakes Vo sees when borrowers send in their paperwork include:

  • Not including a name or other relevant details on key pieces of information.
  • Providing old bank or pay statements instead of those dated within the last 30 days.
  • Sending only a partial document package. If a lender asks for six pages to support your loan, don’t send two. If you’re asked for four months’ worth of bank statements, don’t provide only one.
  • Thinking low-quality or blurry files sent by email or text will be good enough. Lenders need to be able to read what you send them.

If you send your broker an incomplete documents package, the result is inevitable: Your mortgage application will be delayed as long as it takes for you to find the required materials, and your house shopping could be sidetracked for months.

Mistake 2: Blinded by the rate

Ask any mortgage broker and they’ll tell you that the question they’re asked most frequently is: “What’s your lowest rate?”

The interest rate you’ll pay on your mortgage is a massive consideration, so comparing the rates lenders are offering is a good habit once you’ve slipped on your house-hunter hat.

Rates have been on the rise lately given government actions to stimulate the Canadian economy. You may want to lock a low rate now, so you can hold onto it for up to 120 days.

But Chris Kolinski, broker at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based iSask Mortgages, says too many borrowers get obsessed with finding the lowest rate and ignore the other aspects of a mortgage that can greatly impact its overall cost.

“I always ask my clients ‘Do you want to get the best rate, or do you want to save the most money?’ because those two things are not always synonymous,” Kolinski says. “That opens a conversation about needs and wants.”

Many of the rock-bottom interest rates on offer from Canadian lenders can be hard to qualify for, come with limited features, or cost borrowers “a ton” of money if they break their terms, Kolinski points out.

Mistake 3: Not reading the fine print

Dalia Barsoum of Streetwise Mortgages in Woodbridge, Ontario, shares a universal message: “Read the fine print. Understand what you’re signing up for.”

Most borrowers don’t expect they’ll ever break their mortgages, but data collected by TD Bank shows that 7 in 10 homeowners move on from their properties earlier than they expect.

It’s critical to understand your loan’s prepayment privileges and the rules around an early departure. “If you exit the mortgage, how much are you going to pay? It’s really, really important,” Barsoum says.

She has seen too borrowers come to her hoping to refinance a mortgage they received from a private or specialty lender, only to find that what they were attempting was impossible.

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Real Estate

Canadian mortgage rules: What you should know

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If you’re a new homebuyer seeking a mortgage, or an existing homeowner looking to switch or refinance, it’s important that you’re up-to-date on the new mortgage rules in Canada. Here are some of the top things you should keep in mind if you’re looking for a new home. 

The Canadian Mortgage Stress test in 2021

The stress test was introduced on January 1, 2018, as a way to protect Canadian homeowners by requiring banks to check that a borrower can still make their payment at a rate that’s higher than they will actually pay.  The purpose of the stress test is to evaluate if a borrower (a.k.a. the potential homeowner) can handle a possible increase in their mortgage rate.

For Canadians to qualify for a federally regulated bank loan, they need to pass the stress test. To do this, homebuyers need to prove that they can afford a mortgage at a qualifying rate. For homebuyers who have a down payment of 20% or more, currently the qualifying rate is determined using the Bank of Canada’s five-year benchmark or the interest rate offered by the lender plus 2%, whichever is higher. For homebuyers who have a down payment of less than 20%, the qualifying rate is the higher of the Bank of Canada five-year benchmark rate and the interest rate offered by the lender.

This stress test is also performed with homeowners looking to refinance, take out a secured line of credit, or change mortgage lenders. Those who renew with the same lender will not have to undergo the stress test.

Other new mortgage rules in Canada

As of July 2020, a number of changes were implemented for all high-ratio mortgages to be insured by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

A high-ratio mortgage is one where the borrower has a minimum down payment of less than 20% of the purchase price of the home. A high-ratio mortgage is also referred to as a default insured mortgage. Let’s break down what recent changes have been made.

Qualification rate

The new CMHC rules will lower the amount of debt that borrowers with a default insured mortgage can carry. Mortgage applicants will be limited to spending a maximum of 35% of their gross income on housing and can only borrow up to 42% of their gross income once other loans are included. This is down from the previous 39% and 44%.

Credit score

The new rules also require the borrower to have a minimum credit score of 680 (good score). If you are purchasing a home with your partner, one of you must have a score of 680. This is up from the previous minimum score of 600 (fair score).

Down payment

Homebuyers are now required to use their own money for a down payment instead of borrowed funds. This means homebuyers are no longer able to use unsecured personal loans, unsecured lines of credit or credit cards to fund their down payment.

Homebuyers with a down payment of less than 20% of the purchase price are required to purchase mortgage default insurance. Properties costing $1 million or more are not eligible for mortgage default insurance.

CMHC and CREA projections

Due to the pandemic, job loss, business closures, and a drop in immigration, CMHC predicted a 9% to 18% decrease in housing prices from June 2020 to June 2021.* However, this prediction hasn’t come to fruition.

Instead, 2020 ended up being a record year for Canadian resale housing activity, according to Costa Poulopoulos, the Chair of the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA).**

The CREA predicts that all provinces except Ontario will see an increase in sales activity into 2021 as a result of low-interest rates and an improving economy. As for the CMHC, they stand by their original prediction.

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