Photo: By founding Internet of Things Waterloo, Ian Pilon hopes many a lightbulb moment will emerge from the group’s quarterly meetups.
He works at a financial services company, lives in Cambridge and has four kids.
He’s also helping to move Waterloo Region into the centre of an exploding segment of the technology market that will soon dwarf the one occupied by smartphones, tablets and PCs combined: the Internet of Things, or IoT.
He is Ian Pilon, a user experience designer at Sun Life Financial in Waterloo, who has a keen interest in the IoT, a burgeoning field of connected devices that use embedded technology to sense and communicate.
Just last week, Pilon headed up the inaugural meetup of Internet of Things Waterloo, a group he organized for a mix of reasons, personal and professional. The gathering, fully chronicled in pictures and words by Waterloo maker and photographer Darin White, drew twice the number of attendees Pilon had expected.
The big turnout was fitting, given the colossal growth analysts have forecast for the IoT in the coming years. Gartner, in a report released four months ago, predicted the Internet of Things will amount to 26 billion devices by 2020, not including PCs, tablets and smartphones, of which there will be just 7.3 billion.
This represents a huge opportunity for Waterloo Region, where companies like Thalmic Labs and Terepac are already blazing trails into this ever-more-active space.
I caught up with Pilon during a lunch break this week to chat about this bold new world opening up in front of us. He brought an unnamed gizmo along with him, just to make things interesting.
Q – Where does Waterloo Region sit in the emerging field of the Internet of Things? What’s the potential here?
A – I would have to align it with the University of Waterloo. You have a lot of talented kids now who are making interesting hardware projects as part of their schooling.
They’re more open to exploring a startup due to that buzz that’s been around our community for a while now, with the success of Thalmic Labs, Vidyard and a lot of interesting people who are keeping the jobs here.
So the students, I think, have a desire to give something a shot, and I think the Internet of Things will tie into that, because you can do low-cost types of projects that don’t take a lot of infrastructure.
It depends what you’re getting involved with, but to prototype some object to be intelligent is easier than it used to be.
Another thing about this space is maker labs. They’re a huge part of this, because they’re inviting all walks of life to get excited about building hardware things or fixing something; getting back to tearing an electronic device apart and figuring out how it works.
They have open nights on Tuesdays at KwartzLab, so if you want to learn what they’re all about, you can go in.
They have CNC machines, they have 3D printers, they have people who love to share what they know about taking things apart and exploring them.
I’m from Cambridge, so I didn’t get a chance to become a member, but I did go there on open nights.
My family has grown to four kids now, so my time is even more restricted than it used to be. But I went to the lab out in Guelph as well because I liked what they were doing, and I met Simon Clark.
He made this device here, and a seven-year-old could learn to program this. You plug this right into your computer, and you can start to learn how to interact with sensors within half an hour.
Simon has a very simplified way of going through this process. He’s going to be sharing it at the REAP lab next Friday (April 25).
He’s going to bring these, and a kid could go on there and get excited about learning new things; could pick this up, plug it into their computer and start to learn how to code a servo motor to turn; how to use a hall sensor, a light sensor. It’s got all kinds of switches.
He’s breaking the barrier of making things communicate through code and hardware. The code is intimidating in one aspect, and then you’ve got the hardware, so he made a very simple version for somebody to take something and make a light turn on.
Once you get that ‘aha’ moment, then you’re more inclined to go a little bit further and a little bit further.
Q – What will that gadget actually do?
A – This is basically a prototype, a learning tool to try and connect, to explore.
I will say, ‘I want the photo sensor to turn on the light’, and then I’m going to change the code and say, ‘I want the thermal resistor to turn on the light’, so if it reaches the freezing point, it will turn on the light. Then I can switch that and go, ‘OK, I want to learn how to make a switch work.’
I can go through these exercises in the software application and just play. It’s more of a discovery thing.
Q – Which area companies are heavily involved in the Internet of Things space?
A – Terapac is our sponsor. They are an Internet of Things company and their specialization is in microelectronics.
I’m working on an idea right now; it’s kind of in stealth mode. It’s eight bucks for the type of sensor I need to detect pressure, but I’ve got an idea and I need 10 million of them. That’s going to be very expensive, so Terapac is the company that, if my idea goes somewhere and I can get investors involved, they would be somebody I would loop in who could definitely work on getting the sensors smaller and getting the cost down, and scaling it into something really, really big.
I reached out to them by learning of them through the Communitech magazine that went out a few years ago, the Technology Spotlight.
I contacted a bunch of companies personally and I said, ‘You know, I’m really excited about what you guys are doing. I’m a continuous learner, and I have to keep tabs on where the future is going for my occupation; I’m a UX designer, so I need to know if interfaces are going to change and how I need to be changing in the future.’
I reached out to some of these companies and Terapac was one of them.
John Bell is also kind of a mentor of mine, and he’s from Cambridge and I’m from Cambridge, so there’s a good relationship there.
As I learned from that magazine a couple of years ago, there’s just explosive growth in the ubiquitous computing scene. It’s hot right now; it’s absolutely blowing up. The last couple of big festivals were all about wearables and all kinds of buzz going around about IoT.
I wanted to go to (meetups in) Toronto, but as I said, I have four kids, and I don’t have time to drive to Toronto.
There was nothing here, and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just make one.’ And that’s how it came to be.
It was a good call. I reached out to Terapac and said, ‘Do you guys want to be a sponsor? I’m throwing this event and I need some help.’ They were right on board with that.
Q – You’re a UX designer, which is often associated with software, while the Internet of Things is often associated with hardware. How did you get into this space?
A – I would like to say it’s the merging of both.
People get this idea of, ‘I’m going to walk into the room and the light bulb is going to go on.’ It sounds intelligent at first, until you bring a user experience designer into the room, and he goes, ‘Let’s look a little bit deeper into how they use this technology.’
You watch their behaviour and you realize that two times out of 10, the user’s wife is in bed. You didn’t plan for that when you designed your application, so now you’re walking into a room and you’ve got lights turning on when somebody’s sleeping.
So, you need to think deeper, behind the technology.
We can make anything these days, so let’s think about the context of what we’re getting involved with. Make it user-centred design and you’re going to have a more successful product.
That’s what I like about the meetup group. I hand picked a bunch of people, so we had a very diverse crowd. I didn’t want just tech-centred people. I wanted a very mixed group, because it takes a mixed team to bring a real product into the marketplace.
You can’t just have some coder who’s going to say, ‘I’ve got a great idea.’ You need to lean on your veterans in the field. I mentioned John Bell; someone like that is going to ask, ‘Where’s the recurring revenue model in your idea?’
Then you need the user experience designers to catch those ideas and say, ‘Did you think about your application in that context now?’ Because that’s going to come back to haunt you later.
If you invest a year into developing an app, product and hardware, and it goes out into the field and you didn’t do much user research, now you’ve got something that’s not going anywhere, because it has some weird problem or quirk that you never looked at before.
Q – Beyond the personal reasons, why did you feel it was important to form an IoT meetup group in Waterloo Region?
A – The real reason would be, I need to build a team. I’ve got an interesting idea that I’m working on, and so do a lot of other people.
So, if we have a space with a hand-picked, diverse crowd, and then they’ve invited their friends, that’s exciting. When you break out and have a networking session afterwards, everybody talks about it from different angles, not just one way. So that was very cool.
But I’m very particular about getting the very smartest people I can find into the room, and then looping them in when I’m ready to take my idea to the next level.
We’re developing relationships, and I can go, ‘You know what? I’ve got an idea, and I think we should work together on this.’
It’s bringing the smartest people I can find, together in an emerging field, where a lot of the next big things are going to come from.
If I go to a hackathon, I can get a really good developer, but where am I going to get the rest of the team? Especially when you’re exploring ideas, and that’s what this group is about.
It’s not just about the technology; it’s about everything around it.
In the end, the technology is there to serve some human function. So it’s important that you have other people’s perspectives on that. It’s good to see that get aired out right away in a meetup group like that.
Q – How many people showed up to the first meetup last week?
A – I would say 80.
Q – What did it tell you that you had such strong response right out of the gate?
A – That’s another thing – I was only expecting 30 or 40, and I thought that would have been successful for our first meetup.
We had a couple of heavy hitters (lined up to speak), who had to go to bigger conferences. That’s the reason two of them dropped out.
One was Karl Martin from Bionym, who has a wearable that can detect your cardiac rhythms and use that to authenticate your identity on computers. But a Bluetooth conference came up – I believe it was in California – and his business objectives are obviously more in line with that, so he had to bail.
Another group had to go to a conference in Montreal. It was a couple of guys out of Toronto, who make a wearable called Kiwi.
Then I called in people I’d had ready to go for my next event, from CaseSensitive. They’re University of Waterloo students, and those kids killed it. I reached out to them when I heard about them in the media.
Within four days (of the first meetup), I emailed and was like, ‘Dude, two of my speakers bailed out. Do you want to step up?’ They stepped up and came in.
If you take a suitcase and it’s got to fly through different atmospheric pressures in the airplane, what I learned was, the battery has to be a different type. This is something I would have never known, that you’ve got a device up in an airplane and now there are a whole bunch of things you’ve got to troubleshoot.
And these kids were doing it like it was fun, and it was.
They were like, ‘What if we can measure the weight of our suitcase before we get to the airport?’ So there are sensors on the suitcase, and I’m putting in my clothes, and it already tells me, ‘You’re overweight.’ Then I don’t have to worry about it when I get to the airport.
It’s those little things that’ll add to the human element of where this can go. Obviously it’s going to go in some weird ways, but I’m looking for the calm technology, where we can improve humans’ interaction.
My 16-year-old, she can’t put her phone down. It’s just glued there, and that kind of makes me nervous. I used to play in trees when I was a kid; it was before the Internet.
So, I like the idea where we’ve come so far in technology that it’s going to sort of hopefully dial back into this calm technology state, where we’ve gotten over the whole excitement, and go, ‘OK, how can we make that better for humans, for a real human experience, so that maybe my daughter’s not stuck on her phone all the time?’
Q – What would you like the broader tech community in this region to know about your group, and about what you’re trying to do?
A – I would like them to expand their awareness of the group of dynamic people who are involved with technology. It’s not just a coder; you need a very diverse group of people behind you – marketers, researchers, user experience designers; you need business professionals who have skin in the game.
We need to sober up to the reality that we don’t know everything.
Technology is moving so fast, so be humble about learning new things. Share your knowledge.
The community’s already really good at that, but I think what separates our group is definitely this diverse group of people who are there.
Technology’s hot? Yeah, but what can we do with that? When you have diverse minds involved with that equation, you have better conversations, build better products, solve better problems.
Q – Anything you’d like to add?
A – I’d like to thank you guys at Communitech for introducing me to this ecosystem.
I’m from Cambridge, and our community is in talks for getting a maker space, but that’s not rolling out until 2016, last I heard. I can’t wait; I’m not getting any younger.
I’ve been coming up here to get my knowledge, and it’s exciting to watch the birth of a community like this. You can almost feel the energy in the air when you come to some of these events, and I think Communitech is definitely a pioneer in getting this whole system started.
Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.