Canadian tech companies try to make headway at CES 2013

Hundreds of tech companies are displaying their wares at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Among them are more than 90 Canadian firms, including Toronto-based InteraXon, which is showing a headband that harnesses brain power through a headband known as Muse.

Toronto-based InteraXon uses brain-wave-sensing technology for Muse headband

Muse aims to include applications that involve mental health and stress monitoring when it is released in late 2013. Pictured here is an InteraXon employee wearing the Muse headband at the CES. (Peter Nowak/CBC)

It’s not hard to find InteraXon’s booth at the Consumer Electronics Show. Just look for the giant, inflatable igloo surrounded by a crowd of people.

While the structure is a familiar Canadian symbol to many attendees of the annual technology circus in Las Vegas, the action in and around it – the harnessing of brain power through a headband known as Muse – is the real attraction.

Perplexed looks give way to smiles of bemusement as attendees learn to control the volume of music with just their thoughts. Headband wearers are also startled to find they can control the movements of the sun and the moon on a screen simply by relaxing.

It’s these sorts of technological wonders that draw around 150,000 people to CES annually. While the absence of high-profile names such as Apple and Google have in recent years prompted stories on whether CES is losing its relevance, the show remains vitally important for smaller concerns – especially for the 90-odd Canadian companies exhibiting this year.

Smaller companies have chance to shine

"With the big players being absent, that really opens it up for smaller companies to make a story," says Trevor Coleman, chief operating officer and founder of InteraXon. "It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle… but there’s still an opportunity to get noticed that you might not otherwise have."

The Toronto-based start-up first came to CES two years ago, although its principals flew in strictly as attendees. Coleman and his colleagues were still searching for a practical use for their brain-wave-sensing technology. At first, they thought they could supplant traditional methods of computer control – mice and keyboards – with thought-enabled interfaces.

CES was ultimately a good learning experience, Coleman says, since he figured out that there was more demand for applications that involve mental health and stress monitoring, which is what Muse aims to do when it is released in late 2013.

"Back then, we were still looking for what the right idea for this was. We were still looking for the killer app," he says. "We learned that rather than being this kind of soft joystick that’s hard to control, it became this really powerful tool for understanding yourself."

Designing vehicle operating systems

Other players are also at CES to do deals and build their standing with the companies they do business with. Ottawa-based QNX, which was bought by BlackBerry maker Research In Motion in 2010, is using the event to show off its concept cars. While the company is best known for making the software in the new BlackBerry devices launching on Jan. 30, it’s also making strides in supplying automakers with their vehicle operating systems. Indeed, there’s hardly a BlackBerry to be found at QNX’s booth, with a Jeep and a Bentley Continental on display instead.

"When you think about how you’re going to engage with the market, it can’t just be one-dimensional thinking. Obviously, all of our customers are here demonstrating and showing, so we’ll be having meetings with them," says Kerry Johnson, senior automotive product manager.

"It’s also about mind share. Seeing the new concepts and what could be possible really triggers people’s imagination, so QNX gets recognized as a thought leader."

QNX’s Jeep houses the company’s existing software, which has basic on-screen navigation and media controls. The Bentley, however, demonstrates where the company is going over the next two to three years, with a curved digitally projected screen that has advanced voice recognition.

"We’re showing the flexibility of the platform, which can be adapted to something like a Jeep or a Bentley," says Johnson. "Ultimately, you can say, ‘I want to have a pizza,’ and it’ll navigate to a pizza place."

Looking for name recognition

Cochrane, Alta.-based Ant+ is also at CES hoping to broaden its brand. The company started as a developer of accelerometers for running and biking and now has its technology in almost every indoor and outdoor bicycle computer system.

Along with announcing a new deal with silicon makers that will see its wireless technology embedded on microprocessors, Ant+ is hoping to become a more recognized name with the public. While the company supplies the underlying technology that makes fitness-oriented computing devices possible, it’s still not recognized on the level that, say, brake-maker Shimano is.

"Our primary purpose for being here is to raise awareness of the brand of our radio, to the level of customers who are one step below who our customers are," says Paul Lockington, personal monitoring products sales manager. "At shows like these, we can go and talk to the consumer themselves, or to their retailers."