Canadian startups jumping on wearable tech bandwagon

Google Glass and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smart watch have drawn attention to wearable technology, but the action isn’t all south of the border. Canadian startups are developing products that use gestures to control devices, identify you by your heartbeat and – like Google Glass – display information inside special glasses.

As University of Waterloo students, Stephen Lake, Aaron Grant and Matthew Bailey thought  too little was being done about better computer input. Gestures make sense, since “you use your hands to interact with everything else in the world,” says Lake, Thalmic’s chief executive, but most gesture  control systems to date use cameras, which limit the user to a defined work space and aren’t good with mobile devices.

So the three founded Thalmic Labs Inc., based in Kitchener, Ont., to market an armband that can detect its wearer’s arm movements in two ways. The Myo relies on electromyography, or detecting muscle activity through electrical signals, combined with motion detection.

Stephen Lake Prototype
Thalmic Labs CEO Stephen Lake demos his prototype arm band.

After attracting government funding in its early stages, Thalmic raised angel capital and in June brought in $14.5 million through a funding round led by Intel Capital and Spark Capital. Popular Mechanics included the Myo in its 10 Breakthrough Products of 2013 and the New York Times named it in an article titled Which Start-Up Could Be the Next Big Thing?

Myo will support Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android, Lake says. Thalmic will supply software drivers Windows and Mac users can install themselves, and application program interfaces (APIs) for developers who want to build Myo control into mobile apps. The company is taking pre-orders for the $149 Myo and Lake says deliveries will commence in the first half of 2014.

Vancouver-based Recon Instruments originally aimed to put heads-up displays in swimming goggles, because co-founder and chief executive Dan Eisenhardt, a competitive swimmer, saw a need. But the necessary miniaturization proved “an enormous technological challenge,” says Tom Fowler, Recon’s chief marketing officer, and with conventional swim goggles selling for $20 to $40, a viable price would be hard to achieve.

So Recon pivoted from water to snow, and in 2010 launched Transcend, a heads-up display for alpine goggles from Zeal Optics. Follow-up products, MOD and MOD Live, work with “Recon-ready” goggles from seven manufacturers. A display below the right eye shows information like speed, location and friends’ locations. The units connect to mobile devices using Bluetooth.

George Hincapie, a retired competitive cyclist, takes Recon Jet for a spin.

Now Recon is working on sunglasses with a heads-up display. These Recon Jet glasses are due out in March and can be pre-ordered for $599. Recon offers a software development kit so third parties can build on its Jet platform, and Fowler says several hundred developers are working on apps. Possible uses go beyond sports to, for instance, surgery.

Starting with friends-and-family financing, then angel investments, Recon raised $10 million last year in a round led by Vanedge Capital and Kopin Corp., which makes the heads-up display technology Recon uses. Later Intel Capital and others joined in, bringing the total to around $20 million, Fowler says.

University of Toronto spinoff Bionym Inc. is developing the Nymi, a wristband that identifies the wearer by his or her unique electrocardiogram. Put on the wristband, press a button to activate it, and it will control any compatible device using gestures.

The product of six years’ research at U of T, Bionym was founded in 2011 by Karl Martin, chief executive, and Foteini Agrafioti, chief technology officer. Government funding supported early work. The company’s first financing round raised $1.4 million in August.

Bionym is developing an app to make the Nymi work with Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android devices, Martin says. The company has also had interest from “pretty much every consumer electronics company” and will work with selected partners to make the Nymi work with their products. Enterprise applications – such as access control – are also on the horizon.

The Nymi is available for pre-ordering now at $79 and due to be available early next year, Martin says.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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