Anyone can have a great idea, but only a few have what it takes to transform thoughts into things people want. Here, a look at three pioneering devices, dreamed up in Waterloo Region, that made an impact around the world.
BlackBerry RIM 850
First handheld wireless email device
Sufferers of “text neck” and “BlackBerry thumb” can trace their digitally driven ailments back to the release of the BlackBerry RIM 850, the first wireless email device (and very first BlackBerry) to be cradled by human hands.
Introduced on January 19, 1999, the 850 represented a massive shift in modern communication: for the first time ever, corporate email became mobile. With the network capability to automatically push messages to the 850, the era of the “always on, always connected” employee had begun – work had officially been untethered from the office.
Clocking in at 4.7 ounces (lighter than a baseball) and measuring 2.5 x 3.5 inches, the BlackBerry RIM 850 housed a 32-bit Intel 386 processor, 4MB of flash memory and an embedded wireless modem, all of which ran off a single AA battery.
It came loaded with a track wheel for scrolling and a traditional QWERTY keyboard that enabled users to type as fast as their fingers could fly. (Incidentally, the shape of those tiny keys, which resemble the seeds of the blackberry fruit, led Lexicon Branding to give RIM its new, long-lasting moniker.)
RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie got BlackBerrys (soon to be known as “Crackberrys”) into the hands of Wall Street execs and players on Capitol Hill, aligning the technology with professionals and tastemakers in a way that turned the device into more than a breakthrough idea: It became a status symbol.
In the first year of the BlackBerry’s existence, RIM’s sales increased 80 per cent (to US $85 million); the next year sales spiked another 160 per cent (to $221 million). The expression “mobile addiction” suddenly entered the lexicon.
First mass-market smartwatch
When Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky hit paydirt on a 2012 Kickstarter campaign, it was sweet vindication. His idea – to take the always-connected ethos of the suddenly ubiquitous smartphone and apply it to a watch – was something the University of Waterloo grad had been playing around with since at least 2009, when his so-called “BlackBerry watch,” the InPulse, was first announced.
Enabling users to check incoming email at the flick of a wrist, the idea was sound, but the platform was lacking. The InPulse sold around 1,500 units before disappearing in early 2012.
“We didn’t build what people wanted,” Migicovsky later told the Globe and Mail. “It failed, so we had to start Pebble … We just reinvented it from the ground up. The second time worked, it clicked.”
Unlike the InPulse, which relied on the BlackBerry platform, the Pebble watch connected to Android and iPhone systems via Bluetooth.
The market responded. His 2012 Kickstarter campaign for the Pebble initially sought $100,000. He raised that within hours, and eventually topped out at over $10 million – at the time, that made Pebble the largest Kickstarter campaign success, ever. He had orders for 85,000 watches. (A follow-up model, the Pebble Time, would reset the Kickstarter record in March 2015 after raising over $20 million.)
After a few delivery delays, the original Pebble finally shipped on Jan. 23, 2013. With its sharp e-paper screen, the Pebble displayed well in sunlight, had seven days of battery life, customizable watchfaces and was able to run newly developed fitness apps. It was simple but effective.
In the months and years that followed, Sony, Samsung, LG, Motorola and eventually Apple all hopped on the smartwatch bandwagon, but the Pebble, regardless of its rocky beginnings, remains the first stone thrown.
In December 2016, the Pebble stopped rolling: health-tracking wearables maker Fitbit acquired the company, closing a chapter on Migicovsky’s digital narrative.
Biosensor gesture control device
A decade after Tom Cruise waved his little arms around in Minority Report, interacting with a computer using nothing but gesture controls, science fiction became reality in Waterloo Region.
The Myo armband – a sensory device that picks up electrical impulses from the muscles in the forearm to wirelessly control digital devices – arrived as a prototype in 2012, enchanting an audience hungry for cool-looking futuristic gadgetry.
It was a hit before it hit the market, tallying up pre-orders of 50,000 units before the first armband ever shipped. Early adopters quickly identified its potential uses, ranging from touchlessly running slide presentations to flying drones or mastering video game controls. (The original idea actually sprang out of a University of Waterloo dorm room, where future Thalmic Labs co-founders Stephen Lake, Aaron Grant and Matthew Bailey began researching wearable tech after growing frustrated with game controllers.)
One of the world’s biggest DJs, Armin van Buuren, embraced the Myo, incorporating its hands-free capabilities into his show to control stage effects and volume mid-performance and its community of developers has used it to build far-out virtual reality experiences.
But the Myo has evolved into something much more valuable than a way to rack up high scores on Call of Duty – researchers have trained amputees to use their prosthetic limbs with the Myo and it’s been able to help translate sign language.
The future of gesture control is being written right now, right here in Waterloo Region.