Wearables, user experience (UX) design and the internet of things (IoT) took the stage at Genesys technology’s first Toronto Technology Summit this April 2, 2015. Attendees were guided through afternoon talks and discussions by Betakit’s high-energy senior editor Tom Emrich (@tomemrich). I attended the event to learn more about Canadian startups pursuing opportunities in the area and I wasn’t disappointed.
Surprisingly, the event wasn’t all positive on wearables: the theme was that IoT has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. Wrist wearables like Fitbit and the Apple Watch have the same problem as phones—they take our eyes away from the world. IoT is really about freeing people from a reliance on visuals for data. We won’t see the best IoT until we’ve fully unlocked our other senses’ potential to interact with our environment, including movement, sounds, touch, breathing and yes, thinking.
When entering the tech summit’s venue at 87 Elm Street, I couldn’t help but notice one thing: Genesys’ Markham team was out in full force. I have no relationship to Genesys but I have to say they did a great job organizing the event. The event was free and the staff were friendly—it was hard not to like the bright-eyed co-op students who came to talk about their first job. Many were from the University of Waterloo. For software developers, UX designers and tech folks out there, Genesys also made it very clear that it’s hiring.
The event started out with casual networking over a great lunch spread. I met a few Genesys employees who seemed genuinely excited about their jobs. They explained that the company makes call center software that uses your voice to direct your call. As a Genesys spokesperson later explained, there’s more to it. They want to move to a point where customer service calls going “off the rails” can be detected in real time. For example, Rogers could hear customers threatening to transfer to Bell immediately so supervisors can save the day. Not a bad idea.
The tie-in to wearables, IoT and Genesys is this: technology like voice-detection is about building more efficient links between the physical and digital world. Whenever it’d be faster to think, breathe, talk or gesture rather than push a button or click a screen, there’s an opportunity for wearables and IoT to speed things up. It’s about building technology that’s passively aware and responsive. In a similar fashion, great UX design is intuitive and lets people interact naturally with digital displays. The Summit speakers did a great job elaborating on those three themes.
Wearables can monitor your brainwaves
The first headliner speaker at the event was Jay Vidyarthi (@jayvidyarthi) from Toronto-based startup Muse, the brain-sensing headband. I hadn’t heard about Muse before, but their idea is worth talking about. They’ve designed a headband that measures the Electroencephalography (EEG) waves emanating from our heads. As Jay said during his talk, EEG technology has been around for a long time. The Muse difference is that it offers clinical-grade EEG for $299 MSRP, instead of a $30,000+ hospital setup.
The device’s measurement capability provokes some interesting questions. For example, could we use it to monitor and predict oncoming epileptic attacks? Jay said that the company is talking to research institutions all over the world who are interested in using the Muse headband to study EEG waves.
The primary use Muse is going after is helping people meditate by making them more aware of (and therefore control) their brain waves. They liken Muse to a gym for your mind. The device can help you monitor your attention span and strengthen it over time. Personally, I thought that use was interesting but its benefits need scientific support. What did stand out about the company was its exceptional use of customer-centric reviews and feedback loops to improve the product. It was a great intro to the next topic, which was about making design methodology core to a business.
Design culture is about simplicity and efficiency
The second headliner at the Toronto Tech Summit was Joel Grennier (@jgrenier05) from Ottawa’s You.i. Joel switched gears away from wearables and focused on design as a business methodology. You.i created the design cross-platform multi-device UX you’ll see on Canada’s new Netflix competitor Shomi_. From what Joel showed us in his very sharp looking slides, the UX on Shomi is formidable.
Joel had a few pointers on creating well-designed products. The first was that truly responsive “infused” design processes take time to build. Companies can’t add a designer to a software engineering team and call it a day. The management at You.i made a conscious decision to build an integrated design-programming team culture. Joel warned that your company needs both willpower and dollars behind a design strategy before it will amount to anything. However, if design is taken seriously and built into a true capability, it can “change a company’s trajectory.”
How does a company do that? Joel had two great examples. At You.i he said that HR had to make “design” a sought-after language, just like in software. The company had to be able to recognize design talent, seek it out and retain it. I liked that idea, but I liked the second one even more: You.i took all the art and pictures off the walls. Every wall is covered teams’ ongoing work product, to create a culture of transparency and generate discussion. Talk about an embedded focus on design.
Toronto has leaders in UX design and wearables, but there’s work to be done
For the rest of the afternoon, the Toronto Tech Summit continued on with other great speakers:
- Macy Kuang (@macykuang), an expert developer for Google Glass/ Google Cardboard;
- Leor Grebler (@grebler) from The UBI, a platform that integrates voice commands and language interaction with IoT devices;
- Renn Scott, Founder and Chief Designer, Daily Goods Fashion Tech;
- Nick Van Weerdenburg (@n1cholasv) from io Inc.; and
- Director of IoT at Telus, Sachin Mahajan.
During the talks, topics like the Apple watch and Fitbit came up. However, the audience piped up and was quick to point out the current limits on wearables and IoT. The wrist-bound tech that’s entering the mainstream market has all the flaws of the phones they’re meant to replace. What consumers want is to be able to freely interact with their environment while also benefitting from the information that tech makes available.
Although the legal and privacy issues inherent in wearable tech and IoT never made an official appearance at the event, it was a success all the same. I’m looking forward to attending Genesys’ next Toronto Technology Summit this coming Fall 2015.
Empty seats before the event started
87 Elm Street venue
Tom Emrich kicks things off at Genesys’ Toronto Tech Summit 2015 by introducing statistics on wearable technology
Genesys works the hiring booth to recruit for its Markham, Ontario office.
Before the event started most people were outside enjoying a free lunch.
Stacks of job descriptions
Joel Grenier talks UX