Friday, May 20, 2011

Discovering Discovery 2011

Silicon Valley like its metallic namesake is shiny and alluring to those in the tech and digital media sector. In comparisson, Ontario often seems dull and staid. Although Canada has had its share of tech and Net success stories over the years, the news and blogs are saturated with coverage of the happenings in the Valley. Often Canadian tech companies are only covered in mainstream media when they sell out or move down south.

I have felt that Canada, and Ontario in particular, needs to do more to chronicle, honour, and foster our own companies and entrepreneurs. In my small way, I've attempted to help by compiling a list of Canadian Internet luminaries and success stories. I was thus happy to learn about Discovery 2011 conference and tradeshow this week in Toronto.

The conference in its sixth year is organized by Ontario Centres of Excellence. OCE's mandate is to foster innovation in Ontario and help commercialize local research. I'm glad I went to this conference as it was a refreshingly interesting and useful. Most of the tech and Internet conferences I've been to in Toronto generally suffer from being too focused on marketing and miss other crucial components. This conference had an excellent blend of presentations and demonstrations on new innovations, policy discussions, and social and business condiserations.

Due to scheduling conflicts I wasn't able to make it to all the events I would have liked (such as Bill Buxton's keynote). The conference and tradeshow represented a huge cross-section of topics from infastructure, sustainable development, healthcare, and media. It also attracted a wide range of attendees from inventors, investors, students, professors, business execs, start-up founders and representatives of government & NGO programs. I find this a good mix and led to much more interesting conversations than I usually encounter at conferences.
As a side note, it was interesting to hear from academics who have left academia for corporate research or to start their own companies. I don't have entrepreunerial drive, but it was encouraging to talk to people who were able to put their PhDs to good use outside the ivory tower. I received a lot of encouragement to build an app for my dissertation, with BumpTop frequently provided to me as an example of a fellow UofT grad student who very successfully commericialized his thesis.

The mix of topics and attendees (2600 of them) did result that in some presentations not necessarily appealing directly to the interests of all attendees. As such, there were keynotes that weren't up my alley. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty briefly mentioned Canada's history of innovation "from Imax to pablum and insulin to goalie masks" but his talk was largely on the importance of water (the conference was held in conjunction with H20: Ontario Global Water Leadership Summit). Similarly, David G. Thomson's keynote on how to take one's company to billion dollar revenue sadly wasn't particularly applicable to me.

The Future is 3D and it's here (in Ontario)
The event also hosted the subconference Ontario Projection: Advances in 3D. I initially figured that this would also be an area not relevant to my research on mobile media, but I attended sessions nonetheless as I cannot resist the allure of 3D. But the first panel asserted that the largest growth area for 3D content will be on mobile devices (ahead of film, tv, and gaming). One panelist predicts that mobile devices will offer ubiquitous 3D functionality before televisions. Having mostly encountered 3D through the animated feature films or amusement attarctions I attended with my young daughter, I admit I hadn't taken 3D media particularly seriously nor had I considered the possible implications for my research.

What I particularly liked about the presentations at the 3D conference is the points were backed by screenings. One such example was given by contrasting a Lexus commercial in 2D and then again in 3D. I found the first version boring and nondescript. It was also visually unappealing as it largely monochromatic, i.e. a white car against a white backdrop. I am not into gimmicks (or cars for that matter) but the 3D version was a completely different experience. The shots of car interiour were really immersive - I felt I was in the driver seat (and one much higher-end than I usually drive). When the presenter, James Stewart, polled the audience on their preference, it was unamimous that the 3D vesion was superior. Steward added that this finding has been backed up by audience studies.

The defining moment for me came when Stewart screened a clip Werner Herzog's new 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams about France's ancient cave drawings. Stewart asked "Who wants to look at a wall in 2D?" and the clip was so remarkably rich and detailed that the answer was conclusive - we all will.

Although I do think 3D has the potential to be more immersive, realistic, and engaging than 2D, I though that much of the effect was due to the novelty of the experience. As Stewart replied however that this was also the case for HD television. Initially, we were wowed by HD nature shows and sportcasts but now we appreciate in much broader genres. This is certainly my experience from being blown away by HD coverage of Vancouver's Winter Olympics to now wanting even my sitcoms to be in HD. The conference raised a lot of the obstacles that need to be overcome before we see widespread 3D, such as removing the need for glasses, avoiding headaches and blurring for those with vision problems, and the need for artistic maturity. I am glad to see Ontario taking a leading role, including my alma mater York University's 3D FLIC project.

Mobiles - Where's the new gold rush?
The conference offered a mobile website. A mobile app or site could be a tremendous aid to getting speaker and session info, wayfinding, and networking, but in this instance the execution was rather basic and buggy. But mobile technology was well addressed by a panel on the "App Revolution" moderated by Kunal Gupta (Polar Media) with Amar Varma (Extreme Ventures), Anand Agarawala (Google, formerly BumpTop), Krista Napier (IDC), and Michele Perras (MEIC & Transcontinental). To provide proof of the recent tech revolution, Gupta presented a selection of old versus new contrasts: Mubarak vs. #egypt, Blockbuster vs. Netflix, Ken Jennings vs. Watson.

The market for mobile media is anticipated to increase as more smartphones will be shipped this year in Canada than traditional cellphones. But as Perras acknowledged the fragmentation of devices remains the biggest challenge for content developers. This point was also raised in another session where one panelist advised using a mobile website to counter this. But as a speaker stated that the market access and promotion opportunities of app stores is essential for businesses. Agarawala also credits part of his sucess on the app store model as it is a crucial way for people to learn about apps, read reviews, and facilitate downloads.

Another dimension of market access for apps was raised by Napier, highlighting research that shows that bulk of consumers do not download any apps. She thus believes that it is essential for more apps to be preinstalled on devices in order for users to gain familiarity and comfort with using apps, necessary before we see more widespread adoption of the technology. Perras also cautions that consumers are not yet sufficiently savy for "the scope of our ideas to to fit the market uptake". Although the pace of innovation is rapid, it is also "very hard to differentiate between vapourwarde and long-term products", which Perras notes makes it difficult to engage in partnerships.

As for the market opportunities in Ontario for mobile app developers - there was consensus that Toronto has been a hotbead of recent innovation in this sector, but that not enough is being done by government, citizens, or investors to foster growth here. Investors here are too traditional and short-term focused to embrace cutting edge development. Governments offer helpful capital but the process of aquiring funding is too drawn out and time-consuming. Ontarian consumers and businesses are reluctant to try out very new technology and start-ups need market proof and case studies to be able to expand. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has much more of an experimental culture that creates this necessary testbed - as well as a more fertile investment climate.

Ontario's economic growth
In a sentiment I agree with, Varma said he cringed when the Ontario and Canadian governments bailed out the auto industry. "Our economy would be way better if the investment was in our knowledge economy" Varma commented. He believes that this is essential to our economy rather than manufacturing or resource extraction. The problem with goverment support of the new economy was addressed by a keynote by Glen Murray, Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation. He identifies the perceptual barrier among voters with government funding new economy enterprises as it is not as conventional or visible to a community as old industry smokestacks. But Murray does believe that we are not in a "typical recession so we won't have a typical recovery... the recovery will be in high-value and high knowledge".

The Ontario government, however, has been trying to foster the new economy through new grants, agencies (including the OCE), and the recently-announced Social Innovation Wiki. Ontario, Murray lauded, is the first government to open up public input to policy through such online means. Such innovation, he added, is an example of what governments should be doing to exemplify and involve citizens in the new economy and it "didn't cost us anything". With innovation replacing production as the leading soruce of wealth in Ontario, Murray emhasized the critical importance of this area.

Discovery 2011 concluded for me through a DemoCamp session. DemoCamps are unconference events where start-ups have a few minutes to pitch their new product or service. The companies participating were all from Ontario with web-based services. The five pitches came from:
I was glad to have the opportunity to hear more about cool local projects, but the presentations, with the exception of My Legal Briefcase, were lacklustre. Two of the five companies had techical problems in delivering their demo. I've had similar problems and learned the hard way to have mutliple back-ups and failsafes, and to set-up before the audience arrives. At times, I found it difficult to discern the unique value proposition were for some of the companies even though they were clearly impressive products.

Agarawala who successful lead his software company BumpTop to an aquistion by Google offered tips: "Don't be a derivative start-up. Be interesting and not another check-in or social media app." He echoed other comments heard at the conference that many sectors such as healthcare and B2B direly need more innovation and offer opportunities to create new markets rather than flood existing ones. Agarawala offered the tweet test as a way to stand out. "Give people something to talk about" with your product or at least attach your project to a story or trend.

The collective tips and demos from Discovery 11 are inspiring me to consider developing an app for my dissertation research. Either way, as a citizen of Ontario, I was inspired to see so much tech innovation happening here. Considering the large tradeshow, cross-section of attendees, hot topics, and good speakers I feel that Discovery is easily Toronto's best tech conference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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