Welcome to our office



At Robots and Pencils’ head office, you’ll notice something a little different when you come in. Our digital signage may seem “ordinary” but when you walk past it, you may feel as though you’re being watched…

“Mona Lisa” is a subtly fun way to welcome visitors to our office. It uses new technology to take what you’d normally expect, digital signage in a tech office, and turn it into something a little different. For me, Mona Lisa was an experiment that started with a lot of different approaches and it took some time to narrow them down to find what worked best for the situation I was working with.



I’ll start off with the scenario: We wanted to install a display in our office entrance to greet visitors when they arrived for their meetings. We wanted it to look like a piece of art hanging on the wall, but with a twist: the eyes would follow your movement throughtout the room. You’ve probably seen similar effect before but without any fancy technology. We had a few different options available in order to pull this off on a television screen and they can be categorized two ways: image analysis and depth mapping.

The image analysis method uses algorithms to make a good guess as to where a face is in a picture. You’ve probably noticed that your iPhone will use this to find faces in a photo and focus on them. This method is simpler because it only requires a regular camera, but the algorithms only work well when the lighting and contrast of the image is ideal. The depth mapping method is best known by the Xbox Kinect hardware. Here a special camera tracks how far away millions of points are in the room, and builds a sort of topographic map based on that. This method can be more accurate than plain image analysis because it can see in a third dimension but requires special hardware at an extra cost.


There are two different ways that we could implement image analysis. There’s the popular OpenCV software that is used often for these sorts of projects, but we tried the built-in frameworks that Apple makes available on OS X and iOS. This was really the easiest way of the ones I tried. Given some guesses at average face size it was even possible to get the approximate distance from the face to the camera.

I’ll note that although OS X often has some more advanced features, iOS has definitely gotten the love here. It has some APIs that OS X doesn’t have that would have been helpful, but thankfully it wasn’t that hard to port from one to the other.

The drawbacks of image analysis became instantly apparent as soon as I started testing it away from my desk. Anytime the room was backlit (meaning light from a fixture or window was shining towards the camera lens) it proved much less likely to find a face, and this wouldn’t work at all in the well-lit entrance to our office.

This forced me to try out the second method.


We ordered a Kinect camera and I got started figuring out how to get it hooked up to the Mac. There’s no official SDK for the Mac (only for Windows), however lots of smart people have stepped in to fill this void with OpenNI and CocoaOpenNI. It took some fiddling to get everything up and running, but once I started getting information into my app it was smooth sailing.

The best part of depth mapping was that it works so much better in over-lit or backlit rooms. It also provides more accurate information about the distance from the camera than the calculations I could make with image analysis.



You might be wondering why this project was called Mona Lisa to begin with. We originally used an image of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but after having some demos up on the wall for a while we realized that the art theme didn’t fit with our plans to display more information.

I started out just moving the two eye images in front of the larger image to simulate the tracking, but it wasn’t quite convincing enough. I decided to try it out with the SceneKit framework on OS X in order to render 3D eyes that would rotate instead! The effect actually turned out to be very subtle but helped add to the realism, and I think it’s an important detail to make it more convincing.



Ultimately Mona Lisa is about welcoming our guests, so it can also show the visitors’ names, meeting times and room when they arrive. It’s a little touch.  In the future we’re looking to tie the visitor information to our office meeting calendar and other ways to showcase the technology we know so well.


- Brandon Evans, Robot.




@PhilKomarny #5 Influencer from Interop!

Phil was invited to speak at Interop this year, and being the Twitter Guru he is, he was a top 5 influencer according to Onalytica! (For those of you who don’t know, Interop is a huge IT conference held every year. It attracts visitors from all over the world, keen to share their stories and cool new products). Stay tuned – you never know where the intrepid @PhilKomarny will show up next!Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 4.13.07 PM


Robots and Pencils Win an Anvil

On Friday, April 4th, Robots and Pencils brought home the Calgary-based Ad Award, The Anvil, in the newest category: Best Mobile Game or Application. The Anvil was awarded for the super fun game, Sasquatch, available on The App Store here. Robots and Pencils worked with the great team at NotBadU to create Sasquatch, the location hunting photo game.


Click here to see the winning entry and more about Ad Rodeo.


Representing Robots and Pencils were Sandra Mills, left, and Vicki Sloot, right – both Pencils.

Sandra Mills, Left, and Vicki Sloot, Right, with the Anvil in hand

Sandra Mills, Left, and Vicki Sloot, Right, with the Anvil in hand


Robots and Pencils Expands to U.S.


In case you missed it, Robots and Pencils’ expansion to the US hit the papers a few weeks back. We’re terribly excited to have Phil Komarny on board as our chief executive and have been pushing strong into the US market. An office is being established in Austin, Texas with one to follow in London, England within the next year.

Check out the full Calgary Herald article here



Fourth Annual Beaver’s Den


This past Saturday, we wrapped up another year of Start-up School with the fourth annual Beaver’s Den at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering. Once again our panel of judges were pitched great concepts from engineering students and alumni hoping to gain advice, mentorship and investment in their seed-stage companies.

While all participants gained invaluable advice and connections through Beaver’s Den, there could only be one winner. This year, electrical engineering students Ryan Chee and Steven Zhang impressed the judges with their Smart Home pitch, taking home bragging rights, a cool $1000 in prize money and the promise of additional mentorship and advice. Their Smart Home concept promises to automatically operate the lights and heat within your home, no programming required.

Each year, we help coach engineering students and would-be entrepreneurs in the art of starting a business through Start-up School at the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering. Our own Michael Sikorsky is the faculty’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and created the program to highlight entrepreneurship as a viable career path that students can pursue after graduating.

MJ Beavers Den 2014

Interested students and alumni are taken through nearly a year-long process of prep classes teaching them how to start and run their own businesses.

The year is kicked-off with Startup School, an intensive weekend workshop that introduces participants to the tools needed to become successful entrepreneurs. Monthly Fireside chats are hosted throughout the year as guiding points and mentoring sessions. All the work over the year concludes with Beaver’s Den – what we like to describe as Dragon’s Den, but nicer.

This year seven engineering student and alumni teams pitched to our esteemed panel of judges, which included Dean Radomsky, Partner Ernst & Young L.P. and Calgary Lead for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards; Leslie Roberts, CEO of GoRobotsInc.com and makers of the Discover Entrepreneurship app course; Jim Bush, President, Evolution Engineering, and President, Inpetro Energy; and Shilo Nevau, a health, safety, and environmental (HSE) expert.

The story on University of Alberta’s website  can be found here.

Photo credit: Richard Cairney