Canadian firms impress at CES with tablets, 'thought control'

A look at what some of the more interesting Canadian technology firms were up to at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The Consumer Electronics Show, the annual gadget fest in Las Vegas that ended on the weekend, always generates headlines about the latest flashy gizmos heading to stores in the coming year. What most people forget, however, is that CES is ultimately a trade show, and while getting press attention for products is a bonus, companies are there to do business with each other.

The ways of doing business are varied, but for Canadian technology firms — almost all of which are small in comparison with their global competitors — CES is a vital event that can make or break them.

Here’s what a few of the more interesting Canadian companies were up to at CES.

RIM's upcoming BlackBerry Playbook is a tablet computer designed to rival Apple's iPad. ((Peter Nowak))
Research In Motion:
As Canada’s sole technology heavyweight, Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM — maker of the BlackBerry — is in a different league than its country-mates. It’s been fascinating to watch the company’s booth at CES grow and evolve over the years from a simple stand displaying a few phones into a huge sound-and-light show, complete with celebrity appearances. RIM has been forced to raise the ante in terms of how it presents itself at the show, thanks to fierce competition from other phone makers such as Apple, Motorola and Samsung.

This year, the company used CES to tout its upcoming BlackBerry Playbook, a tablet computer designed to rival Apple’s iPad. The company announced the device will be available in the first quarter and will have a cellular connection option through Sprint in the United States, with other wireless carrier deals likely to follow.

RIM’s booth was packed with demo units of the Playbook, which is smaller than the iPad and has several features not found on Apple’s device. The Playbook has rear- and front-facing cameras, which allows for video conferencing. It also has the ability to multitask and display websites that use Flash. The device can also run several apps at once, including multiple video playback windows.

Tyler Lessard, vice-president of global alliance and developer relations for RIM, said one of the Playbook’s key differentiators is that it is designed with business users in mind.

"We’re ensuring that out of the gate it’s enterprise-ready," he said. "It’s built in a way that IT departments can be sure they’re rolling it out in a way that’s consistent with their policies and that they can manage the corporate data that sits on them."

3DeeCentral is a library of paid and free 3D content for 3D PC, mobile and internet connected devices. ((Spatial View))
Spatial View:
At the other end of the spectrum is Spatial View, a tiny Toronto-based company involved in developing the 3D imagery market. The company used CES to launch 3DeeCentral, an online repository of 3D photos and video for PC and mobile devices.

The website offers free and paid content in a variety of 3D flavours — both for devices that require special glasses and those that don’t.

This year’s show marked the first time Spatial View had a booth, a small, modest stand compared with RIM’s behemoth. A few laptops were set up to display the company’s 3D offerings.

Spatial View’s main purpose for being at CES was to attract partners to augment its content library. All of the photos and video available through 3DeeCentral so far are from independent photographers and filmmakers.

One of the main problems facing adoption of 3D in the home is a lack of content, an issue many manufacturers attempted to address at this year’s show by introducing  3D-enabled cameras that let consumers create their own.

Spatial View is trying to help fill that void as well. 3DeeCentral will ultimately accommodate both professional and user-generated content.

"People will be able to be able to take their photos and videos and integrate them in and view them in the same environment as the stuff they’ve purchased," said chief operating officer Al Lopez.

XYZ Interactive: Having a booth isn’t the only way to do business at CES. Michael Kosic, president of Toronto-based startup XYZ Interactive, made the rounds at the convention centre’s meeting rooms to talk up his company’s gesture-recognition technology with potential buyers.

Gesture-recognition is starting to heat up, thanks in large part to motion video gaming consoles.

"The best thing to happen to this space wasn’t necessarily [Microsoft’s] Kinect, but the [Nintendo] Wii," said Kosic. "That’s what really brought it attention."

XYZ has been working on gesture technology for eight years and is getting some traction now, Kosic said. The company will have a formal booth at next year’s show, he added.

The difficult technological challenges with gesture control have been solved, he said, which means new applications are going to start appearing quickly.

Some potential new applications of the technology, which uses infrared light to detect movement, go beyond video games and include things like home lighting and plumbing controls. Gesture-controlled dimmers would be very simple to implement, Kosic said, as could sink faucets that would change water temperature based on a person’s hand movements.

"There’s very little chasing the magic anymore," he said. "It’s just hard engineering now."

A screenshot of Zenbound from develop Secret Exit. ((Secret Exit))
InteraXon is another Toronto-based startup. The four-year-old company brought a number of employees to CES to walk the show floor with demos of its thought-controlled iPad game.

The game, called Zenbound, is available through Apple’s app store, but only in a non-thought-controlled version at the moment. The game challenges players to wrap a rope around wooden models by tilting and moving the iPad around.

In InteraXon’s demo-only version, designed with game maker Secret Exit, the physical tilting and movement of the iPad is replaced with mere thought. The user wears a headset that measures alpha and beta brainwaves, harnessing them to control the game. Getting good at it is not unlike playing golf — the secret is to relax and focus.

InteraXon made waves in 2010 with a demo that had attendees at the Vancouver Olympics control the lights on the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and the Parliament Buildings with similar thought-controlled technology.

The company says getting commercial interest in what has so far been a research-only field is the key to speeding up development of the technology, hence its presence at CES.

"I have great respect for research and what happens in research, but there’s a very different kind of thought that happens when you take the work that’s been going on in research and apply commercialization with a specific goal to it," said chief executive Ariel Garten. "You’re able to mobilize individuals, funds and the populace in that direction."