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Why Toronto is a Hotbed Pioneering Wearable Technology

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“What is going on in Toronto right now?”

Last September, that question was posed to Torontonian Tom Emrich at the Designers of Things wearable technology conference in San Francisco – a city many think of as the birthplace of latest tech and startups. The query took Mr. Emrich aback, but it confirmed his feeling that something magical was happening back home. Canada is pushing the limits of wearable technology, and Toronto in particular has become a hotbed, experiencing a flurry of activity and curiosity in this space.

Mr. Emrich, 36, hosts a meetup group (called We Are Wearables) that is among the largest wearable tech meetups of its kind in the world, gathering hundreds of attendees monthly at the MaRS building to explore and experience new products and developments. Last October, he hosted WEST, the city’s first full-day conference looking at the impact of wearable tech on the sports and entertainment industries. Earlier this season, he brought wearable tech to the runways of both Startup Fashion Week and TOM, Toronto’s first-ever Men’s Fashion Week.

Mr. Emrich is quick to add that you can’t tell the story of wearable tech in Canada right now without gesturing to Montreal and Waterloo, but he pinpoints Toronto as the birthplace of wearable technology, crediting pioneers such as Steve Mann of the University of Toronto.

A recent report by IDC Canada, a market intelligence network, looked at the Canadian wearables market from 2014-2018 and projected that, while the sector is in its infancy, we can expect to see “hockey stick” growth over the next five years. A recent report by Juniper Research reveals that retail revenue from wearable tech could reach $19-billion worldwide by 2018, up from $1.4-billion in 2013. And while Toronto-specific data isn’t yet available, it seems you can’t throw a stone in this city without landing on a wearable tech startup, conference, or runway show.

Many of the Toronto startups are moving well beyond the typical wristband gadgetry: eSight is a digital eyewear company that literally enables the blind to see; Heal-x leverages 3D printing to sculpt orthopedic braces; Muse uses brainwave-sensing technologies to allow its users to do activate tech with their minds.

“These companies aren’t just creating ‘me too’ devices, they’re actually leaders in their own segments in wearable tech” says Mr. Emrich. “These are first-of-their-kind technologies.”
Among the wearable tech companies putting Toronto on the map is Muse, a brain-sensing headband promising to bring mind control to the masses. The sleek device sits on your brow and trains your brain for mindfulness through guided exercises interfaced with your smartphone or tablet. A product of InteraXon, Muse launched on Kickstarter in late October, 2012, and quickly nearly doubled its goal of raising $150,000 in less than three months. The product seems posed to become one of the largest consumer wearables ever, and was recently named by VentureBeat as the most important wearable of 2014.

“With the constellation of wearable tech in Toronto right now, we’re making waves all over the world” says Ariel Garten, CEO and co-founder of Muse.

Ms. Garten tells me she has travelled extensively promoting her product and describes being in Asia and having people recognize not only Muse, but also Toronto as a wearable tech hub. “Whenever I go to Silicon Valley everybody is taking about Toronto and wearable tech.”

While Muse may seem like a new-age product, tracing its development reveals a history of wearable tech in this city: Chris Aimone, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Muse, was a master’s student’s of Steve Mann, and helped design and build the Digital Eye Tap device. Ms. Garten, a neuroscientist, artist, and psychotherapist, was introduced to Mann in 2003. Together they collaborated on an art project, and shortly after Mr. Mann became a mentor and advisor to Muse. “Steve is a great friend and colleague, and we jam all the time on new ideas” says Ms. Garten. “Had it not been for Steve and myself coming together over brain-sensing technologies, Muse probably wouldn’t have been born.”

Often described as the Father of Wearable Technology, Mr. Mann has been experimenting with wearable computing for nearly forty years. Originally from Hamilton, Ont., he says his fascination began when he was four and his grandfather taught him to weld. Since then, he has been experimenting with ways of integrating technology and the body.

In the 1980s, he completed an early version of his EyeTap Digital Eye Glass, a general purpose computer that attaches to the human body and allows you to look up information while walking around. The device can send and receive voice, video and other data. For those keeping score, Mann’s Eye Glass project predates Google Glass by more than 30 years.

In 1998, he built a prototype of the world’s first wristwatch videophone, called the WearComp project, as well as Wearable Wireless Webcam. The influence of these inventions can be seen in today’s smartwatches like Samsung’s Gear and lifelogging cameras such as Memoto. “I think in some ways Steve gave the world the courage to wear their technology,” says Ms. Garten.

In 2009, Mann’s fully integrated eye camera system was successfully implanted on a visually impaired subject and named among the top 50 inventions of the year by Time Magazine.

“It was the summer of 1985 that I first described Toronto as the epicenter of wearable computing” he says. Mr. Mann sees the commercial wearables of today as a continuation of the work he has been doing since the 70s and 80s, and he describes Toronto as a cyborg-friendly city.

“Wearable tech seems to fit the culture here” he says. “Toronto has become a hotbed for wearable tech because we’ve created an environment in which it can grow.”

Indeed, Toronto’s business history makes it a fertile landscape for wearable tech according to Kate Hartman, an artist and technologist who works with e-textiles and connected clothing and an assistant professor in the Digital Futures Program at the Ontario College of Arts and Design. Originally from New York, Hartman moved to Canada five years ago in response to an OCAD job posting for a professorship position in mobile and wearable technology.

“The activity here has grown exponentially in the last few years” she says. “Toronto has a history of being supportive of technology from commercial and artistic perspectives. It’s also a city that has a history of textile manufacturing and fashion activities – from fashion shows, to a textile museum, to multiple colleges and universities offering fashion programs.

“There’s a flow between disciplines and industries in Toronto, and a multidisciplinary approach is really something that wearable technology demands. It’s impossible to pull off a wearable product without dealing with computing, electronics, and the business of how to actually put stuff on the body.”

Andrew D’Souza runs one of those Toronto businesses, as president of Nymi (formerly Bionym) he believes wearable tech can solve one of the top irritations of the digital age: Passwords and security. His company’s Nymi band bracelet uses your heartbeat as a means of authenticating your identity. In 2014, Nymi raised $14-million in Series A funding. In the fall, the company announced a pilot program for biometrically authenticated payments via the Nymi band for customers of RBC and Mastercard.

“People in Toronto and Canada aren’t afraid of hardware” says Mr. D’Souza. He points to Canadian companies such as Blackberry as pioneers in the technology sector and anticipates that – just like mobile – wearable tech will experience a number of iterations as it continues to explode onto the scene.

“If a product tests well in Toronto it’s likely to do well in London and Tokyo because we have such a diverse and tolerant culture, and that’s something San Francisco just doesn’t have.”

“The city has all the conditions for [wearables] to thrive,” says Mr. Mann. “It’s the place where wearable technology has its roots, and it’s also the place where it will continue to grow.”

This story first appeared in The Globe & Mail

 

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