This year, I found myself in Toronto’s tech community. I don’t just mean “found myself” as in I stumbled upon this wacky world of wearable technology and virtual reality—although I did—but I also mean “found myself” in the way you do when you finally find a neighbourhood that feels like home.
An arts and culture writer who studied literature, I was a little outside my comfort zone attending my first wearable technology meetup at the MaRS building. I was on assignment for the Globe and Mail, and I had no idea what I was getting into. Covering tech was supposed to be a one-time thing, something to get my foot in the door with a national publication; I wasn’t supposed to fall in love. But I did.
In 2014, I interviewed a cyborg, touched a 3D- printed arm, and poured beer with my mind using brain-sensing technology.
The tech community in Toronto—which is actually comprised of smaller, micro-communities that overlap and intersect—is a collection of incredibly friendly, open, and talented individuals. It’s filled with people who don’t really make sense anywhere else—like an island of misfits. As someone who has never made sense anywhere, I immediately felt at home.
Soon I was seeking out the startup scene and returning to tech meetups with excitement. Community Management Conference? Let’s go. Social Media and Society Conference? Sign me up. North by North East Interactive? Where do I get a press pass, please?
Along the way I’ve connected with some of the most intelligent and generous characters I’ve ever met, including Tom Emrich and Elena Yunusov, both of whom are staples in the scene and regularly contribute to BetaKit. When Douglas decided to bring me on to the writing team, I was honoured to find myself in the company of such talented thinkers and community connectors.
At our most recent editorial meeting, we talked about what BetaKit has been in past and what it can be for 2015 and beyond. Tom said that December is the time you do two things: you look back and you look forward. At first, when I reflected on my year, I didn’t think I had much to contribute. After all, who am I but some wannabe arts writer? Then I whipped out my smartphone and scrolled through my social media feeds from the past year and thought, wait a minute, I’ve been all over this beat. In 2014, I interviewed a cyborg, touched a 3D- printed arm, and poured beer with my mind using brain-sensing technology.
While I may have thought I was chasing culture stories, I was in fact at the centre of an unfolding industry—let’s call it the digital culture industry. And, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem I’ve had to leave my old interests behind. The truth is that every aspect of culture is being transformed by technology, and if you’re missing the digital component of culture then you’re not really paying attention.
Throughout the year, I’ve documented my adventures with social media (Instagrams, Vines, tweets, etc.). Looking back, these pieces of microcontent seem like digital breadcrumbs I’ve left for myself in case I’d ever need to retrace my steps.
Here are my most memorable moments and discoveries of 2014. Admittedly, most of my experiences are Toronto-centric, since that’s where I live and work.
14. 3D-Printed Pumps
3D printing has become all-the-rage the past few years, but it wasn’t until 2014 that this new technology really proved its utilitarian value (for me, at least): This year saw the successful implant of a 3D-printed skull, as well as the integration of 3D-printed prosthetics on both humans and animals. More on the intersections of health and 3D printing later. For now, I’m taking a fashion-focus and harkening back to April of this year, when I attended #FutureFashion, an exhibit of 3D-printed fashion at Prologue Lifestyle in Toronto.
There I met Mary Huang of Continuum Fashion, a Brooklyn-based design studio experimenting with 3D-printed shoes, fabrics, and accessories. Mary is one of a handful of designers integrating 3D-printed materials into her creations.
All of the shoes you’re looking at were 3D printed. For each pair, the rubber bottom and the structure of the shoe itself were printed separately and then affixed together. Mary then used ribbon to secure the shoe around the ankle. From the time she clicks “print” to the time the shoe materializes is about ten hours per shoe, but Mary imagines the process will speed up as the technology advances. She also says it won’t be long before the shoes require no assembly at all and print ready-to-wear.
What really hit home for me at #FutureFashion is the way 3D printing is transforming manufacturing—and we’re not just talking about clothes here. This year, we also saw 3D-printed homes, 3D-printed food, and just a few days ago the world’s first 3D-printed car.
13. The Commercial Drone
Sure, we’ve heard of drones being used for military or filmmaking purposes, but I didn’t fathom we’d be so close to getting our hands on them. And by “we” I mean the general public. So you can imagine my shock when I walked into Henry’s Camera Store in Toronto to find the Phantom 2 for sale—a fully functional “flying camera,” as the salesman explained it to me…
For just shy of $1000, consumers can take this technology home—but what are the implications? In addition to allowing photographers and creators capture new perspectives and soar to new heights, drones are also raising unprecedented social problems and safety concerns, requiring new laws and regulations.
12. Samsung Galaxy Alpha Launch Party & Maker Faire Launch Party
Thinking back on my year in Canadian tech, two launch parties stick out in my mind (and no, it’s not because of all the free booze)… The Samsung Galaxy Alpha Launch Party and the Maker Faire Launch Party. Both events brought together the tech community and highlighted the intersections between technology, art, and entertainment.
#MMFTO @AbsolutCanada @MakerFaiteTO Tweet to change the colour of the vodka installation… http://t.co/9BEmkbMqdK pic.twitter.com/Dn6t7XL7Il
— Girl About Toronto (@AmandaCosco) November 6, 2014
At the Samsung launch party for their new phone, the Galaxy Alpha, we saw how Samsung Canada has a vested interest in aligning itself with young, urban creatives. The night featured 3D printers, a four-prong silkscreen machine, an Instagram photo booth, and performances by Yuna and Austra.
This woman is beautiful @YunaMusic #galeriealpha #Toronto #Music http://t.co/5b3hopr08n pic.twitter.com/XwlBTZapZH
— Girl About Toronto (@AmandaCosco) October 2, 2014
For me, the night underlines how technology—specifically, the mobile phone—is being thought of, used, and marketed as a tool for creation and personal expression. It also epitomized an interesting shift I’ve been noticing in Canada from Apple towards Samsung. While Americans seem dead-set on their iPhones, I think Canadians are more open to trying a diversity of devices.
11. Meeting Tech Tastemaker and Babe Blogger Casie Stewart & VICE Founder Suroosh Alvi
Coming-of-age as a media kid, you’re bound to have role models, or at least people who have influenced your path. 2014 marked the year I had the opportunity to meet two such people…
I first met Casie Stewart at the Community Management Conference (CM1) in the summer of 2014, but I’d heard about her at least two years prior. Casie has blogged her way to microcelebrity status in Toronto and beyond by documenting her daily life on Casie Stewart: This is my Life. At CM1, Casie was speaking on the relationship between brands and influencers, as she’s often pointed to as a thought-leader for all things social media. I have tremendous respect for Casie: not only has she built her personal brand from scratch, but she’s also always on the cutting edge of the next big trends in tech and new media storytelling. Later, we’d travel to Montreal together on a blogging tour and I’d get to know her a little better.
I also had the chance to meet Suroosh Alvi, co-founder of bad-boy brand VICE. Suroosh spoke at North-by-North-East Interactive (NXNEi) about how VICE went from a small-town, zine-like publication in Montreal to an international multimedia empire.
What links Stewart and Alvi is their permissionless approach to media-making, which is something I’m confident will come to the fore in 2015 and beyond.
10. Speaking at the Canadian League of Poets About the Relationship between Technology & Poetry
Earlier this year, the Canadian League of Poets invited me to speak on the influence of technology on poetry. The discussion that emerged was yet another example of the many ways technology is changing and challenging all industries, including art. What’s most interesting to me is that we can’t really talk about poetry and technology without talking about poetry as technology; After all, the only reason devices such as rhyme and metre were invented is so that people could remember things before the written word was invented. If this discussion piques your interest, you can read a summary of my talk here.
9. Seeing Wearable Tech on the runway at both Startup Fashion Week & Toronto’s first-ever Men’s Fashion Week
Toronto has become a hub for wearable tech, and that’s because we’re a city frenzied with startups and fashion activities. This year, wearable tech walked the runway at the city’s first Startup Fashion Week and Men’s Fashion Week.
Both events marked mergers of the technology and fashion worlds, two seemingly opposite communities that find themselves colliding in wearable tech. Watch a video of We Are Wearables at TOM below:
8. Taking a Selfie at a Panel on Selfies with Jesse Hirsh at the Social Media and Society Conference 2014
This year marked the fifth Social Media and Society Conference. Held at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, this international conference explores the impact of—well, you guessed it—social media on society. How apropos that I’d bump into tech broadcaster Jesse Hirsh and snap this selfie at a panel showcasing academic research on selfies.
For me, the Social Media and Society Conference signals strong academic interest in emerging media technologies and digital culture. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are no longer dismissed as juvenile activities but are instead being regarded as platforms ripe for intellectual consideration.
7. Meeting MeU Founder Robert Tu & Technologist Kate Hartman
Among the memorable people I’ve met and interviewed are Robert Tu and Kate Hartman. Kate Hartman is an artist and technologist who works with e-textiles and connected clothing. She’s also an assistant professor in the Digital Futures Program at the Ontario College of Arts and Design. Watch her TED Talk here. Robert Tu is an entrepreneur and the founder of the MeU, a wearable LED light display system.
Here’s a video of Tom Emrich of We Are Wearables wearing Robert’s MeU:
What connects Tu and Hartman is their innovative approach to textiles and connected clothing. When it comes to wearable tech, these two aren’t just talking the talk—they’re walking the walk, too!
6. Attending WEST, Toronto’s First-Ever Full-day Conference Focused on Wearable Tech
In late October of this year, Toronto hosted its first-ever full-day wearable tech conference. Held at 99 Sudbury, WEST explored how wearable technology impacts how we’re creating and experiencing sports and entertainment.
The conference marked the first time I had the chance to try Oculus Rift and my eyes were literally opened to the way virtual and augmented reality will change everything from the way we educate our kids to how we experience music.
Panel on how #WearableTech is making music tactile @journeydan @NadeemZynik @the_meu_led @SubPac #Toronto #WESTConf pic.twitter.com/8Ot290WspS
— Girl About Toronto (@AmandaCosco) October 21, 2014
5. Pouring a Beer with my Brain w/ at WWTO
Since May, I’ve been attending We Are Wearables (WWTO), a monthly tech meetup dedicated to wearable tech held at the MaRS Discovery District. In September, WWTO featured the Muse headband, a device VentureBeat named the most important wearable of 2014. This sleek device sits on your brow and trains your brain for mindfulness through guided exercises interfaced with your smartphone or tablet. The evening included a talk with Muse creator Ariel Garten and her team at InterXIon. As a part of showcasing Muse’s brain-sensing capacities, the device was connected to a beer tap. When you calmed your mind, you were rewarded with a delicious pint of beer! Here’s a video of me successfully pouring my beer with my brain:
4. Touching a 3D Printed Prosthetic Arm
Also at NXNEi, I met some of the fine folks from the Not Impossible Foundation, a not-for-profit organization shifting the focus of technology from gadgets and gizmos to humanity. Here, I learned about Project Daniel, their mission to help an amputee from South Sudan by building him a prosthetic arm. By helping one amputee, the Not Impossible Foundation was able to discover ways to help many amputees and work towards solving a real social problem in war-torn parts of the world. A truly inspiring story.
Learn more about Project Daniel here
3. Interviewing Yvonne Felix, a Woman who was Blind but can now see Thanks to Wearable Tech
Also at WWTO I had the chance to meet the lovely and talented Yvonne Felix, a user of eSight. eSight is a Canadian company changing lives with their electronic glasses that literally enable the blind to see. Yvonne wasn’t born blind, but lost her sight at age seven when she was hit by a car. Since then, she has tried to lead a normal life: she’s an artist, wife, and mother—but imagine never being able to see your family? Wearing eSight she was able to see her husband and child clearly for the first time. More on this amazing Canadian company here.
2. Meeting Father of Wearable Tech Steve Mann
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet (and later interview) father of wearable tech Steve Mann. Mann has been experimenting with wearable computing, VR, and brain-sensing technologies for nearly forty years. In 1980, Mann created a Digital Eyeglass, a general purpose computer that attaches to the human body and allows you to lookup 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!
Father of #WearableTech Steve Mann on his history wearing computers #FITCwearables cc: @Hydraulist pic.twitter.com/CrYm7CT6dl — Girl About Toronto (@AmandaCosco) November 13, 2014
1. Interviewing Cyborg Neil Harbisson for the Globe & Mail
Topping my list of exceptional experiences this year was meeting and interviewing Neil Harbisson. Harbisson has been hailed as the “world’s first cyborg” because he has an antenna osseointegrated to his skull (attached to the bone). The antenna allows him to hear colour, since he was born completely colourblind.
While Harbisson self-identifies as a cyborg, he declines the title of the “world’s first” anything. “We all use technology differently,” he told me.
In May, Harbisson visited Toronto to keynote at the Mesh Conference, a Canadian web conference exploring all things tech and digital. “I don’t feel I’m wearing technology—I feel I am technology” he told me. Read the full article here.
Trends to Watch for 2015:
Needless to say, I’ll be staying in this scene through the new year. Here are a few things I’ll be keeping my eye on in 2015.
Technology & Women
As more women make waves in the tech industry, we’re seeing more innovations for women. This is especially true in the wearable tech space, with companies like Ringly, Knixwear, and Intel designing with women in mind.
Technology for Humanity
Up until this point, a lot of tech has been gadget-focused, but as we’re seeing with the Not Impossible Foundation and companies like eSight, technology is increasingly being harnessed to solve social problems.
Technology & Art
While new technology raises new concerns for privacy, it also opens up new opportunities for creative expression. For example, 2015 will see the first ever Drone Film Festival in New York. I’m also interested in the way the internet will shape narrative and storytelling structures (for example, have you heard of Twine yet?)
Technology & the Body
If you’re wondering where all this wearable tech business is headed, the answer (in my opinion) is that we’re all slowly becoming cyborgs. The biotechnology revolution is here, and I’m excited (and a bit freaked out) to see the ways we’ll continue to integrate technology into the body.