It’s interesting to watch your home town evolve and change over time. Having grown up in Kitchener-Waterloo, I’ve watched the transition from small industrial businesses to a technology start-up culture.  The regional economic development organizations have been working really hard on building a new economy foundation.

Now that a tech culture has been established, the regional planners are now working on cultivating a more vibrant arts culture. One motivation behind this is to create a community that attracts technology talent by providing a vibrant cultural environment if they ever have a chance to leave their offices.

My personal view is that “The Arts” are a critical component for success in technology companies and “Technology” is a critical component for growth in the creative community.  Back in 1987, people thought I was weird because I was studying computer science AND fine arts. I repeatedly had to explain to people the interdependence between the two fields.  The only way to teach people about how art and technology interconnect was to demonstrate it through exhibits and experiential events.  With the help of the University of Waterloo Creative Arts Board, I organized a series of displays and events across campus to demonstrate the importance of combining skills from “The Arts” with “The Tech”.  The result was “Arts and Technology Week” – an entire week of events across campus that demonstrated how essential creative skills are in the technology sector and how technology is used in the Arts.

The “Arts and Technology Week” featured a visual exhibit of technical materials that required artistic skills for design and communication as well as digital visual art that was produced using technology. We were running SIGGRAPH computer animation videos in the Math building and showcasing electronic musician performances in the Campus Centre.  We even had people come together at a local art gallery for an art “experience” where people used a wide variety of instruments to create sound which was then broadcast out into space.   Events were running across campus non-stop throughout the entire week.

But the moment that really changed my life was when I stumbled upon an interview on Much Music with two fellows from a company called Mandala Systems.  Vincent John Vincent and Francis MacDougall had created a system that took your video image, digitized it and merged it into a graphic scene on a screen in front of you. As you moved, of course your video image moved and the interaction of your image with objects in the graphic display triggered a midi synthesizer sound. This was my light-bulb A-Ha moment where I found my passion for Interactive Digital Display and all the wonderful experiences and solutions you could create.

I had to invite them to “Arts and Tech Week”.  I managed to find  their phone number in Toronto. In the pre-WWW days, I’m not really sure how I managed to do that.  When I asked Vincent if he would consider coming to the University of Waterloo to showcase their technology, I discovered that both him and Francis were from UW. Vincent was a Psychology major and Francis was in Computer Science. Vincent was looking for someone who could help him interact with a computer without any attached devices and one day, he found Francis and thus began the creation of their Interactive Digital Display company, now known as GestureTek,  They are the inventors of the Kinect Camera which has been sold to Microsoft and now part of  XBOX ONE.

Back in 1987, over 500 people came out to the UW Fed Hall to see Vincent John Vincent and his band and their Virtual Reality performance. Vincent was the world’s first Virtual Reality performer.

Fast forward to TEDxWaterloo in 2011 and Vincent came back to deliver a talk about “Body, Mind and Spirit” and balancing our humanity and technology.  His TEDx talk contains a lot of information about the importance of designing technology for humans.

GestureTek is just one example of how essential it is to combine “The Arts” and “Technology” to push the envelop of innovation and create new business models and opportunities. They have been working in this world for almost 30 years and a lot of vision and communication was required to build a sustainable and innovative company.  What impresses me the most about their evolution is that it was certainly an Arts-led initiative. When I refer to “The Arts”, I am including the full spectrum of the humanities disciplines. The success and innovation at GestureTek has its roots in Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology as well as the creative arts.  The design of the technology and the success of the business strategy was closely related to the importance of the experience for the humans.  What a novel concept! Build solutions based on natural human movement.

Today, this type of design expertise is labeled “UX” for user experience design. Many people think of UX as a cosmetic superficial component because they imagine it to be about how something looks on a screen. It is so much more. It is about the type of experience the human has when using the technology to try to accomplish something.  Frankly, it is about your customer. Your customer experience is extremely dependent on how you design your product.  Steve Jobs was meticulous about ensuring the experience that humans had with the Apple products was exquisite.

The REAP (Research Entrepreneurs Accelerating Prosperity) initiative that I have been working on at the University of Waterloo happens to focus on the Interactive Digital Display business vertical, but the underlying research is exploring how to design new business models now that we have this type of technology out in the market.  We look at existing technology and explore how we can create new business models and solutions for a wide variety target markets.

This long-winded story comes back home to the work that needs to be done to build the economy of Waterloo Region. We have created a support network of experienced business experts to help build technology companies.  Now it’s time to consciously raise awareness of the importance of the human factors in the design of this technology if we want to fill the region with sustainable new businesses.  It’s also time to look at the creative skills we have in this community and find ways to use technology to develop a sustainable ecosystem for them to be able to make a sustainable living.  Time to facilitate collaboration between Arts and Technology people and bridge the gap between them through education and communication.