Canada has a long history as an innovation nation and in keeping with this tradition, the federal government’s new focus on making innovation a visible and central priority is most welcomed. The renaming of a federal department and the appointment of a Minister responsible for innovation are just the first signals that a shift is underway to bring into focus the industries, businesses and individuals who will reshape Canada’s economic prospects going forward.

Thursday at Rideau Hall, His Excellency David Johnston will be honouring those who contributed to Canada’s success by presenting the first Governor General’s Innovation Awards. This new award celebrates achievements in a variety of sectors, including technology, medicine, science and the arts.

As one of the biggest clusters for video game development in the world (employing over 20,000 workers and contributing $3 billion to our nation’s GDP), Canada’s video game industry applauds this initiative and welcomes the renewed focus on innovation and creativity.

With well over 40 years under its belt, the global video game industry is not a new player in the innovation game. Some of the most talented people in the world, both working in technical and creative fields, have been pushing the boundaries of interactive digital entertainment. With each new generation of games, the innovations in computational and technological power, the complexity of level design, the rendering of 3D graphics, and the immersion of the game play experience have continually improved player experiences and made video games a cultural touchstone in line with other popular entertainment like film and music.

Motion games, pioneered on a grand scale by the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in 2006, proved that games weren’t going to be confined to joysticks and controllers forever. Now, the video game industry is leading the development of virtual reality technology as an entertainment medium, but also demonstrating its utility in other sectors as the technology makes major breakthroughs in the consumer electronics market.

In nearly all aspects of digital interface, virtual reality technologies are proving their potential to change the way we solve problems and how humans generally see the world in which they live.

As this immersive medium evolves, we will likely see improved employee training on virtual construction sites to help reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. House hunters will be able to peruse real estate without the need to attend every open house. And, we are already seeing virtual reality play a role in assisting remote surgeries and for visualization for surgical planning. The technology’s immersive nature is also showing promise in treating and managing pain during medical procedures, and in treating a variety of sensory input disorders.

In essence, the tools developed for entertainment now have serious applications in robotics, sports, physical and mental health treatments (to manage anxiety disorders, depression, grief and PTSD with war veterans).

Recently, Ubisoft Montreal partnered with McGill University and Amblyotech to tackle the problem of amblyopia or more commonly known as “lazy-eye.” The condition affects three per cent of children internationally and occurs when the brain favours one eye over the other. Dig Rush, played on a tablet with 3D glasses encourages active focusing and is thought to be five times more effective than the current treatment option of eye-patching.

As a driver of social innovation, games have served as invaluable tools in education, helping kids and adults learn the skills needed to participate in the innovation economy. Today, Canada can also boast an active group of academics playing a role in pushing the boundaries of games to new areas. The University of Waterloo’s Games Institute is using games research and technology and applying them to non-game situations, a practice commonly known as gamification.

The Games Institute is working with partners such as FlourishiQ to research games and gamification techniques to engage the users of the company’s wearable device in establishing daily insights on wellness data, sleep and other physiological data that can be monitored to improve quality of life. Gamification techniques are being used in a game to help users find safe spaces in urban environments while another game, Spirit 50, incentivizes exercise for older adults as they engage with technology. The UpSWinG project in development with collaborators at McGill University use game techniques to engage policy stakeholders in solutions for improving sustainable water governance.

If Canada is to remain a leader in innovation, more must be done to focus our efforts on building up the resource that is responsible for innovation — talent. There already exists a global race to acquire the best and brightest talent to drive innovation and create the products and services that change the way we live, work and play. The ability to lay claim to those innovators is the only way to compete with other innovation nations around the world. Canada must develop an immigration framework that allows the seamless and efficient movement of highly skilled workers in the technology fields.

But targeted immigration isn’t enough. A domestic digital skills training strategy is also key to our continued success. How countries arm their future workers with the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) skills they will require to compete in a global and innovation driven economy will mark the difference between a country that falls behind and a country that prospers and thrives.

Jayson Hilchie is President & CEO of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.

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