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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

7 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers In Calgary

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Buying a house for the first time can be overwhelming to say the least. If you’re wondering what neighbourhood to go with, what you can afford, or even how to just get started on the process, let us take some stress off your hands! We’ve teamed up with Hopewell Residential to give you 7 tips to ensure the home you end up with is everything you dreamed of.

Hopewell Residential is a five-time Developer of the Year award winner, so their expertise is second-to-none in Calgary and beyond. Who better to learn home-buying tips from than the homebuilders themselves?

Create a checklist of needs & wants

This is a biggie. When you’re buying your very first home, you’ll want to weigh your needs vs. your wants. Ensuring you have what you love in your first home is a big, big deal.

What should you do? Easy. Set up a list of needs and a list of wants, but be pretty strict with yourself, and make sure you take your lifestyle into consideration. With the increase in remote work over the past year, it’s important to keep in mind that a home office or flex room might just be the key to maximizing at home happiness. Especially if you’re thinking you might be expanding your family later on, spare rooms and extra space is key (but more on that later!).

Or for instance, you might need a home in an area with a high walkability score, but you want to be close to certain amenities. Set yourself up with the right level of compromise and the number of homes that actually fit your ‘perfect’ idea will skyrocket.

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‘Don’t give up’: Ottawa Valley realtors share statistics, tips for homebuyers in ‘extreme’ sellers market

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The real estate market in the Ottawa Valley can be summed up this way: people from far and wide are in a buying frenzy, but there’s hardly anything to buy at the “store,” and the limited inventory is overpriced.

This “stampede” — as one realtor described it — will affect rural towns as residents grapple with finding affordable housing and agonize over their inability to purchase homes in their price range.

“We are seeing a lack of inventory in all price ranges,” said Laura Keller, a real estate agent from Carleton Place.

Helen Vincent, a Renfrew realtor, said she’s never seen a market like this in her 36 years of practice. “We postpone offers for four to five days in order to get all the buyers,” she said.

Multiple offers — between seven and 10 — became the norm, with cash offers and no conditions, as buyers faced bidding wars. “In Ottawa, they have up to 50 (offers),” she added.

“It’s very stressful. You’re going to get nine (people) ticked off, and one happy. So many people are disappointed,” Vincent said.

Terry Stavenow, an Arnprior realtor for 40 years, said that “the pent-up need took over with inventory going low. It made a stampede on everything that was available.“

“Brand new housing — it’s very much gone. Several building developers are rushing to get inventory. They usually don’t do construction in the winter months,” said Stavenow.

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Real Estate

10 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers

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Buying a home for the first time is exciting and a commitment to the future. It’s often challenging, too, and the process requires a lot of steps, many of which can be tricky to navigate as a first-time home buyer.

What are some things you should keep in mind as a first-time home buyer?

First-Time Home Buyer Tips

Here are 10 tips to keep in mind as you begin your journey toward homeownership.

1. Have Your Finances in Order

It’s wise to begin saving as early as possible once you’ve made the decision to purchase a house. You’ll need to consider the down payment, closing costs (which often range from 2% to 5% of the down payment), as well as move-in expenses.

You also need to understand the other costs of homeownership, such as mortgage insurance. property taxes, utilities, homeowner’s insurance, and more.

2. How Much Can You Afford?

Knowing how much you can realistically afford in a home is another important financial consideration. Look for the home of your dreams that fits your budget.

One way to avoid future financial stress is to set a price range for your home that fits your budget, and then staying within that range. Going through the preapproval process will help you understand what price range is realistic for your budget.

3. Make Sure Your Credit is Good

Another thing to keep in mind as a first-time home buyer is your credit score because it determines whether you qualify for a mortgage and affects the interest rate that lenders offer. 

You can check your credit score from the three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

This is another good reason for getting preapproved before you start your search. Learn more about the preapproval process and your credit score.

4. Choose The Right Real Estate Agent

A good real estate agent guides you through the process every step of the way. He or she will help you find a home that fits your needs, help you through the financial processes, and help ease any first-time buyer anxiety you may have.

Interview several agents and request references.

5. Research Mortgage Options

A variety of mortgages are available, including conventional mortgages – which are guaranteed by the government – FHA loans, USDA loans, and VA loans (for veterans).

You’ll also have options regarding the mortgage term. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is popular among many homebuyers and has an interest rate that doesn’t change over the course of the loan. A 15-year loan usually has a lower interest rate but monthly payments are larger.

6. Talk to Multiple Lenders

It’s worth your time to talk to several lenders and banks before you accept a mortgage offer. The more you shop around, the better deal you’re liable to get – and it may save you thousands of dollars.

7. Get Preapproved First

Getting a mortgage preapproval (in the form of a letter) before you begin hunting for homes is something else to put on your checklist. A lender’s preapproval letter states exactly how much loan money you can get.

Learn more about the preapproval process and how preapproval provides you with a significant competitive advantage in our article How Preapproval Gives You Home Buying Power.

8. Pick the Right House and Neighborhood

Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of the different types of homes based on your budget, lifestyle, etc. Would a condominium or townhome fit your needs better than a house? What type of neighborhood appeals to you?

9. List Your Needs and Must-Haves

The home you purchase should have as many of the features you prefer as possible. List your needs in order of priority; some things may be non-negotiable to you personally.

10. Hire an Inspector

Hiring an inspector is another crucial step in the home buying process. An inspector will tell you about existing or potential problems with the home, and also what’s in good order. You can learn more about home inspections and how to find a home inspector through the American Society of Home Inspectors website.

Buying a home for the first time is a challenge, but it’s one you can handle with the right planning and preparation.

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