Inside Innovation: Nurun tinkers with tech

The shop's hackathons have produced a chair sensor to get you off your butt and a voice-controlled temperature control.

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There’s a pair of Google Glasses that, for about 50% of the day, sits on Khoa Nguyen’s head. The glasses are like an extra limb for the emerging technologies strategist over at Toronto’s Nurun, but he says he’s willing to part from them for two weeks. He’ll let whoever comes up with a brilliant enough idea to “hack” the wearable computing device to take them home, no strings attached. That’s how dedicated he is to stirring innovative thinking and innovative doing at the agency, which specializes in design, research and digital, with 12 offices worldwide and its headquarters in Montreal.

Nguyen wants Nurun staffers, from coders to creatives, to think big and come up with ideas that involve unrestricted tinkering with already existing tech. He invites anyone to approach him with something they’d like to make, individually or in teams, during a weekend “hackathon” at the office every few months or so. The hackathon is a three-day event, from Friday to Sunday, where staffers get together to brainstorm and develop new applications using already existing tech such as Google Glasses and 3D printers.

Typically, Nguyen says, they don’t start with the technology, they begin with an idea, with which participants can approach others in the office to help them bring to life if they aren’t able to do it on their own. They’re self-organized, he says, and this helps them to “get out of the neighbourhood” and seek out talent in the office. Then, if they’ve cleared their plate on the Friday of the Hack, they can start tinkering. The weekend is when most of the action takes place, he says, and the following Friday (“Demo Day”) the agency brings everyone together to show off the products trade show-style.

The Hack program has taken place four times in less than a year and 34 people within the company have participated. In that time, six hacks have been developed, including “Git Up” – a sensored chair that sends smart-ass desktop notifications to a person when they’ve sat for too long, and “The Attendant” – an app that alerts people when the washrooms are occupied.

And the most recent Hack, which took place late last month, saw three staffers create voice control software for Nest thermostats as well a “Friday Beer Cart app.” The former can adjust the temperature on a Nest thermostat using voice commands such as “Ok Nest, lower the heat by two degrees” and the latter gives employees the ability to buy a beer for each other as a “Thank you” as well as the option to start a tab.

We popped by during Hack week to catch some of the tech tinkering as well as speak with Nguyen about why he decided to introduce this innovation program, and how the learnings reflect back on the agency. Here’s what he had to say.

 Interview by Megan Haynes, videography by Jennifer Horn