If you haven’t heard of NOBAL Technologies, think again. This Calgary-based firm is poised to shape the future of shopping with its smart mirror technology. And make no mistake, the iMirror, which was developed with support from Alberta Innovates, is no ordinary mirror.
How does it work? Imagine you’re shopping in your local clothing store. With a few screen taps on the iMirror, you can create a fully dimensional image (“avatar”) of yourself, allowing you to virtually “try on” different styles, sizes and colors. The door-sized mirror can not only tell you what’s in stock in store or online, it can even make personalized recommendations. The result: less time spent in sitting room sessions, greater customer satisfaction and more opportunity for sales for retailers.
With these advantages, it’s no wonder the iMirror is starting to be embraced by retailers around the world, ranging from Puma’s flagship store in New York City to Selfridges in the UK to Brands for Less outlets in Dubai.
The technology is also appearing in the hotel business. Since 2019, guests at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, B.C., have used the iMirror as a “virtual concierge” to order event tickets, book dinner reservations, check weather or get more hotel information. U.S. hotel and casino company Caesars Entertainment has also signed a deal to install iMirrors at an innovation centre in Las Vegas, part of enhancing its guest experience.
“Our clients are discovering incredible return on investment (ROI) on our product,” says NOBAL CEO Bill Roberts, who estimates that use of the iMirror can increase store sales on average by as much as 15 to 20 per cent.
Client journey started nearly a decade ago
These are just the latest developments for NOBAL, which was established under a decade ago.
Back in 2012, Pieter Boekhoff, a Calgary computer scientist and entrepreneur, had a breakthrough idea: by leveraging the latest in smart devices and machine learning, the potential existed to create an interactive mirror technology that could provide a completely new digital experience for shoppers.
This was enough to persuade Boekhoff to found NOBAL in March that year. Soon after, Boekhoff, the company’s original chief technology officer, and his partners at NOBAL reached out to Alberta Innovates for help.
Alberta Innovates provided help from start
“They came to us initially look for funding, but they ended up accessing much more. We had a lot of meetings discussing the technology, intellectual property (IP) protection and launch strategies,” remembers Michael Kerr, who worked with NOBAL as Alberta Innovates’ senior technology development advisor (TDA).
With Kerr’s assistance, the NOBAL team successfully applied in 2013 for micro voucher grants to help underwrite initial software development. Then, starting in 2015, they secured a series of commercialization associate grants from Alberta Innovates to bring on much needed business expertise. At the same time, Kerr offered coaching and introduced them to other funding partners, including contacts at the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program.
“We were helping them to get strategic investing and make the right connections to bring a technology forward that was revolutionary,” says Kerr, who now manages Alberta Innovates’ TDA program for southern Alberta.
As their technology developed and their network grew, NOBAL attracted the attention of international retailers. One was global lifestyle and fashion giant PVH, which owns the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands. Starting in 2018, PVH invited NOBAL to demonstrate the technology in several of its stores in Europe. Then, in 2019, with financial backing from Alberta Innovates, NOBAL launched a product demonstration in the UK, initially with Walmart and then with the Asda supermarket chain.
NOBAL’s iMirror was starting to make inroads with some big name retailers. But to grow business further, the company recognized the time was right for new leadership.
At Boekhoff’s request, Roberts was invited to take over as NOBAL CEO. Roberts offered solid entrepreneurial credentials (he had transformed local companies Stor Edge, Real Storage Management and Calgary Archives and nationally Innovative Records Systems Group into Canadian success stories) and is one of NOBAL’s investors.
With Roberts at the helm, the company strengthened their business organization and focused on speeding up technology commercialization. Within months, the company introduced the third generation of its iMirror, incorporating new advances in materials and computer design.
“We’ve rebranded, we’ve evolved and we’re moving to a fully commercialized product that we are deploying globally,” Roberts says.
Canadian product shipped globally
Since then, company’s sales revenues have begun to accelerate. At the time of interviews for this article, the company was in the process of shipping new units to Florida, the UK and Dubai, and had just inked new partnership deals with retail firms in Qatar and California. Plans are also under way to launch the technology in the Kohl’s department store chain in the U.S.
It’s an exciting time for NOBAL, which in nearly a decade has grown from two employees to 18, with plans to add more staff this year. Already active in the retail and hospitality sectors, the company is looking to expand into the medical services and home sectors. And Roberts estimates that product sales could increase by as much as 250 per cent in 2022.
Looking back, Roberts credits Alberta Innovates for playing a critical role in NOBAL’s journey.
“They’ve been much more than a resource for money. They’ve provided guidance and support when we’ve needed it most. They’ve helped our product become what it is now — a Canadian product that is commercialized and being shipped around the world.”