Transformers: Next Generation

Atlantic Business talks to local researchers about some of the exciting new developments in regional digitalization

The digitalization of life is becoming as pervasive and routine as the air we breathe. Whether it’s heating our homes, powering our smartphones, keeping our children safe, growing food, getting operated on by a surgeon a thousand kilometers away, or exploring the world in a driverless vehicle, digital technology is affecting civilization on an epoch-changing scale. Many of those mind-blowing, world-changing technologies are being developed and exported from right here in Atlantic Canada. Here’s a look at nine of our most compelling and promising innovators and companies in the midst of lighting up our little corner of the digital world.

An entirely new dimension is about to emerge that’s going to change the way you see the world, thanks to the University of New Brunswick’s Dr. Yun Zhang’s 3D Worldview software.

“Currently all online mapping sites use line maps and satellite images to show the earth in detail, but all you see are flat images. You can’t tell how high anything is or how hard the terrain is to navigate,” says Dr. Zhang. He knows what he’s talking about: Zhang created technology that powers part of Google Earth and Google Maps Street View.

“So we have taken geospatial data from public and private databases to generate a 3D map that anyone can use to visualize the entire earth, to as close as one metre.” The view is so photo-realistic that looking at it is almost dizzying as you zip up and down and around the mountains and valleys of the world.

After almost a decade in development, 3D Worldview is finally ready to hit the market. It’s anticipated it will push both personal and business decision-making into an entirely new direction.

“Many telecom companies are contacting us because when they build a tower, they need to know the topography of the land, where the signal can reach, and how accessible the site is,” says Dr. Zhang. “There is software, but it needs experts to understand and interpret the raw data. With our visualization software, non-expert decision makers can immediately see where a tower should go because they can interact with hills, mountains, and valleys in 3D.”

Dr. Zhang says the technology has countless applications for real estate development and tourism— even disaster relief. “In 2005, there was a devastating earthquake in the high mountains of Nepal. Everyone around the world tried to help. But with 2D maps, everything looks flat. The few roads zig-zag and are too steep for big trucks with heavy loads of supplies,” says Dr. Zhang. “With 3D maps, disaster relief workers can see this problem immediately, and make informed decisions how to overcome it before they even leave.”

Every hour, the sun emits enough energy to power the entire Earth for one year. Collecting that energy has traditionally been done by rigid, glass solar panels, but that’s all about to change: Dr. Ghada Koleilat at Dalhousie University is experimenting with ways to transform your clothes into energy-generating devices.

Using carbon nanotubes, Dr. Koleilat can bathe or spray fabrics with an invisible liquid that will one day turn your sportswear into a computer—and power it too.

“What we’re talking about is the bio-functionality of clothing so that it can listen to your heartbeat, test body fluids like sweat, or monitor muscle movements and wirelessly send the information to a mobile device,” says Dr. Koleilat. “The technology has the potential to create the circuits a computer needs and to power itself with light instead of a bulky, rechargeable battery. People don’t want to feel technology in their garments.”

The technology is also suitable for turning other fabric-based products into solar power generators, including tents, window blinds, and furniture.

Dr. Koleilat is currently testing fabrics for her experiments and it’s not an easy task. She’s searching for a textile product that can be thrown into a washing machine, over and over again, and still come out as a functioning computer.

For anyone older than a millennial, playing safe as a kid meant looking both ways before crossing the street and staying away from the train tracks. Today, as more kids turn to tablets and smartphones to have fun with friends, playing safe is more about keeping them away from adult content and your credit card. Moncton-based Itavio has created a mobile app that allows parents to manage their children’s online gaming.

“With our app, parents can filter the types of games and content their children can access and remove their kids’ constant asks for money or credit cards for the magic berries and little hearts they want to enhance their game,” says Melani Flanagan, CEO and co-founder. “It also lets the parent be the timekeeper, with settings that determine how long they’re allowed to play.”

Two years into its development, and now available for sale, the company is in the midst of ramping up its sales with a $250,000 investment from New York-based media giant Hearst Communications. The deal includes office space on the 48th floor of Hearst’s iconic Manhattan tower plus access to the company’s top marketing talent. According to Flanagan, Hearst is well known for doubling-up on funding for startups that take off under their wing.

“Right now we’re working with some amazingly talented people from Cosmo and Seventeen magazines who are working with us to take our product and brand to an entirely new level, and Esquire is helping us with public relations,” says Flanagan. “We may also be considered for the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. We would never get this kind of exposure with any other investor.”

Flanagan says the company’s stay in New York is only temporary, and that she and her co-founder, Matt Pichette, continue to maintain their residences in Moncton.

“We started the company with just the two of us and a small amount of money we stretched out over two years, living on a shoestring, and it’s all been so worthwhile,” says Flanagan. “I love my province, and even though raising capital on the East Coast is fun, we just couldn’t get enough to fund our company fully. That’s mostly because New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and P.E.I. are always in competition with each other when they should be working together.”

For now, it’s safe to say that when it comes to play, especially the financial game, Itavio is in the right place at the right time, with the means to make the online world a little safer for kids.

With rising power costs and the effects of climate change, many people are looking for ways to conserve energy. One way is with a programmable thermostat—if you can figure out how to set up calendars, clocks, and temperatures using two buttons and screen resembling a 1980s digital wristwatch. Another option is to install a smart thermostat that can be programmed and controlled from anywhere with your smartphone. For most Atlantic Canadians, however, who heat their homes with baseboard heaters and a thermostat in every room, smart thermostats aren’t practical for the average household. Then there’s Mysa, a new St. John’s, Newfoundland start-up that got into the game with their own lower cost, baseboard-friendly solution.

Co-founded by Zach and Joshua Green, the idea struck after the twenty-something brothers went into business doing residential energy audits. They set out to design the hardware and software for what they call the world’s first smart thermostat for multi-room baseboard heating. What sets it apart from the competition is its networking capability for baseboard heat at one-third the price. You can have them in every room of your house, adjust them individually, group them in zones, or control them all together from the palm of your hand.

“What’s great about Mysa is you can install them in any room you want—just the ones you use most or all of them,” says Zack. “Over time it learns about your behaviour and optimizes itself. We’re also working to integrate with smart home systems like Amazon Alexa and Apple Home.”

They’ve already sold thousands of their manufactured-in-Ontario standard 24-volt thermostats for the average in-home baseboard room heater. With their eyes set on the lucrative big-city condo market, the company is currently finalizing the design and manufacture of a new high voltage thermostat, with plans to expand their technology for use with cooling systems. So no matter where you are or what you’re doing, when you feel it’s time to get yourself warmed up or cooled off, the brothers Green will have a greener way to create your own Goldilocks zone—before you even get there.

Based in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, wireless-charging technology company Solace can charge electronic devices through thin air. It works by embedding hardware into everyday objects (like furniture or automobiles) that any electronic device with wireless charging capability can detect, tune into and recharge its battery. Unlike magnetic wireless chargers, Solace’s system does not require touching or precise alignment.

“If our RC² power system is built into a conference table, all you need to do is be near it to start charging, so when you’re in a meeting, your battery is being replenished just sitting there,” says company CEO Kris McNeil. “Even the conference bridge and its cumbersome power and communications cords could become wireless and portable.”

With patents filed in 23 countries, the start-up recently signed a licensing agreement with Byrne, a Michigan-based power and data solutions company. Byrne provides technology integration products for the $18-billion North American office, hospitality, and residential furniture manufacturing industry.

“We are delighted to partner with a market leader like Byrne in developing high-quality products for our RC² technology. They’re a perfect fit for licensing our technology as we continue to execute on our strategies for growth and profitability,” says McNeil.

He says using wireless charging can also be better for the bottom line of the average user since it can charge a battery as fast as a power outlet and with much better efficiency. “If you take a standard laptop or phone adapter, you’ll notice that it can be quite hot to the touch when plugged in. That’s the way adapters get rid of excess energy that the device doesn’t need,” says McNeil. “Adapters are about 50 per cent efficient.”

Even though many machines will need to remain hard-wired, wireless battery charging is already finding its way into objects other than telecommunication devices. Say goodbye to the pesky hanging wires you find dangling from your table lamps and TVs. It’s just a matter of time before they’re replaced with wireless ones, and hopefully without packaging that reads “batteries not included.”

Whether it’s a new public school or big box store, getting a construction project off the ground takes more than throwing a ceremonial shovel of dirt. Full socioeconomic and environmental impact studies are expected, and citizen engagement is a must. Lori Clair and Dr. Jake Arsenault, co-founders of New Brunswickbased The Black Arcs, are making that process easier through big data visualization.

“Citizen engagement is a real pain point for municipalities and getting them to understand all of the variables around community planning,” says Clair. “So we developed a web-based data visualization tool that developers and citizens can interact with and move things around to see the impact it makes on people and the environment.”

Using a touch-enabled screen inside a table-sized console, people can move buildings and parking lots to different building sites. For every move they make, the system returns visual data that shows population reach, how many can walk versus driving to the location, proximity to sensitive areas, flood risk, even resulting increases and decreases in carbon emissions.

“Where a building is built and how people get there are fundamental components of urban planning and a primary driver of community health and wealth,” says Clair. “Unsuccessful designs can contribute to traffic and parking problems, obesity, heart disease, mental health concerns, and poor air quality. For developers, time is money, and they go through the same type of engagement as municipalities, so it’s worth the investment.”

The company uses open data, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, and design to make it work. The first pilot project is currently underway in Sussex, New Brunswick, for a new middle school construction project.

“Working with the South East Regional Service Commission, we created ‘Sackville the Game’ to deploy in community meetings and online. Citizens will create their dream scenario and then view a comprehensive analysis of its impact,” says Clair. “Both citizens and government will have access to the best performing and most popular designs in real time.”

In the future, the company is planning to open its solution to commercial real estate developers with additional features including demographics, foot traffic, parking, and transportation.

If there’s one measurement that means nothing to most people, it’s the number of kilowatt hours of power you use each month. Shown on most power bills in one lump sum, it says nothing about how much energy you’re consuming using different things around the house. With energy prices on the rise and climate change on the mind, the psychological adage “you can’t change what you do not acknowledge,” rings just as true for electricity usage as it does for anything else in life.

That was until Simptek Technologies entered the scene in 2014. Based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the fledgling company’s web-based software uses data from power meters to detect almost every appliance in your house, how much energy each uses, and what it costs to operate every month. From hot water tanks to air conditioners (even your hairdryer!), it keeps track of your electricity use and make suggestions about how to stay on budget—in real time.

“For now, our solution for homeowners is only available through participating utilities,” says company CEO Asif Hasan. “Smart meters and smart grid technologies are becoming more plentiful across North America, and it’s important for people to do what they can to save energy, especially at peak times, because the more power we demand as consumers, the more expensive it is to generate it.” NB Power is currently piloting their smart grid technology with numerous homes across the province.

Until it’s ready to launch for homeowners, the company has developed a new, custom solution for large commercial real estate holders that’s now the core of their business.

“In most cases, energy studies are completed building-by-building and can take as long as six months, leaving you with a very technical 120-page snapshot that’s difficult to understand,” says Hasan. “We can visualize, analyze and show the corrective actions needed at several locations simultaneously, right in front of your eyes.” Once Simptek compares a particular building’s energy use with data from other optimized buildings, they use artificial intelligence to manage a company’s energy consumption remotely.

There’s no better way to taste a raw vegetable than freshly picked, straight out of the garden. That’s what TruLeaf, a farming company in Truro, Nova Scotia is providing consumers all across Canada. Using vertical farming techniques and technology, they grow a variety of microgreens indoors, using only water and free of pesticides and herbicides. The company both licenses its technology to other farmers and sells its greens through its subsidiary, GoodLeaf Farms.

“Digital technology is the backbone of our operation. Our sensors and software remotely control feeding, building temperature, humidity, and lighting to ensure optimal plant health and growth,” says company CEO Gregg Curwin. “We also have sensors that detect pathogens. We aim to have the cleanest environment possible so you can eat our product right out of the container. We’re currently working on robots that will handle our growing trays and produce.”

Vertical farming involves growing crops on shelving systems that stack from floor to ceiling. Curwin says that this type of cultivation is one of the most important advancements in food security around the world, especially since it requires no soil and can reuse up to 90 per cent of its filtered water.

“Whether it’s in the desert, or in a hurricane-proof building on a tropical island, our technology can save lives, especially with the super healthy products it produces,” says Curwin.

Indoor farming is also opening doors for new and higher paying jobs since the practice demands the specialized expertise of computer scientists, engineers, agriculture technicians, and businesspeople to keep the environment clean and the veggies tasty. “When you wash greens you remove a lot of the taste. Using technology, we’re recreating that experience where you go out, pick a leaf from the garden, and get that beautiful taste,” says Curwin. “Most greens are sent thousands of miles in dirty old trucks, they have zero taste, no shelf life, and the nutrition is way off.”

A relatively new term for the average consumer, a haptic is a tactile alert that delivers physical information to the user. The most common type is probably like the FitBit, an exercise app that tells you when you’ve met your step goal for the day, or you’ve been sitting too long. That’s the simplest application for a haptic, which is also used to give feedback for tasks as complicated as operating a driverless vehicle and performing surgery.

Dr. Ya-Jun Pan, an engineering professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is prototyping new haptic systems in her laboratory that will allow doctors who are performing surgery from a remote location to feel the same resistance against their surgical tools that they would if they were present.

“For telesurgery, the biggest challenge is putting sensors on surgical tools to send information back to the surgeon,” says Dr. Pan. “If you want to make a simple motion like suturing a muscle or organ, you need a model and algorithm for those tissues. Right now we’re working on a virtual reality simulator that will allow students and doctors to practice surgeries in the most realistic tactile environment.”

Dr. Pan is also working on technology for driverless vehicles that gives remote operators the sensation of different types of conditions, from rocky, bumpy surfaces, to the all too familiar out-of-control sensation winter drivers face on icy roads.

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